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Russia: Sakharov Museum Case Focuses Attention On Freedom Of Speech

A Moscow court has convicted the director of the city's Andrei Sakharov Museum and his deputy of instigating religious and ethnic hatred. The decision follows a controversial art exhibition at the museum dealing with the topic of religion. The Russian Orthodox Church has welcomed the guilty verdict. But human rights groups have denounced the ruling, saying it deals a blow to freedom of speech, as well as freedom of conscience, in Russia.

Prague, 29 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The art exhibition in question was unveiled in January 2004 and stayed open for only 96 hours.

Titled "Caution, Religion," it featured 42 works by 42 artists. The show's curators said the works shared a common aim -- to provoke discussion about the role of religion in modern society.

In the end, the exhibition provoked a lot more than discussion. Within days of its opening, activists from the self-described Movement for the Renewal of the Fatherland vandalized many of the exhibits, calling them blasphemous.

The offending artwork included a painting of Jesus' face imposed on a Coca-Cola logo next to the words "This is My Blood."
"This case proves that in Russia, there is no freedom of conscience as such. There is the Orthodox Church's freedom to act in an uncontrolled manner, the freedom to somewhat denigrate other religions, and a ban on atheism and agnosticism." -- Yelena Bonner

The vandals were charged with hooliganism but cleared after intervention by the Orthodox Church and several State Duma deputies.

Instead, it was Sakharov Museum director Yuri Samodurov, his deputy Lyudmila Vasilovskaya, and exhibiting artist Anna Mikhalchuk who faced trial, for inciting ethnic and religious hatred under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code.

Mikhalchuk was acquitted. But yesterday's guilty verdict for Samodurov and Vasilovskaya has shaken the Russian art world and infuriated human rights activists.

The court ruled the two had instigated religious hatred by insulting Orthodox believers. It also ruled that they had fanned ethnic hatred as well, because most Russian Orthodox believers are ethnic Russians. Both were ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 rubles ($3,600) each.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, welcomed the verdict, saying it would prevent future attempts to insult believers.

Yelena Bonner, widow of human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, could not disagree more. She tells RFE/RL that, in her view, yesterday's verdict confirms freedom's limitations in Russia.

"This case proves that in Russia, there is no freedom of conscience as such," she says. "There is the Orthodox Church's freedom to act in an uncontrolled manner, the freedom to somewhat denigrate other religions, and a ban on atheism and agnosticism."

Yurii Shmidt, defense lawyer for the convicted curators, goes even further, accusing the Russian Orthodox Church of pursuing its own political agenda.

"Our right to freely express our opinions and convictions is something they want to suppress in order to make Orthodoxy the state religion and turn Russia into a theocracy," he says.

That is a view shared by Nikolai Khramov, of the Russian Radical Party, which also protested the verdict.

"We are extremely worried by this court case," he says, "and we do not see it as an isolated episode but as a stage in the attempt to turn the Russian Federation from a secular, law-based state into a de facto clerical state where Orthodoxy, as interpreted by the Moscow Patriarchate, becomes the de facto state religion, where the Patriarchate assumes the position once held by the ideology department of the [former] Central Committee [of the Communist Party.]"

Activists say the verdict is a consequence of Russia's postcommunist law on freedom of conscience and religious associations, which they believe is flawed and contradictory. While the law defines Russia as a secular state, it also recognizes what it calls the "special contribution of Orthodoxy to the establishment of the state system in Russia."

The law also makes a distinction between Orthodoxy and other faiths. Activists believe this lays the groundwork for court rulings that favor Orthodox views over others.

For his part, curator Yuri Samodurov says the fact that a court has become the arbiter of what is proper art -- and what is not -- should worry all artists and those concerned about the freedom of creative expression and censorship.

"For the first time, a court, in the name of the state, has formulated the idea -- through its guilty verdict -- that there exists art that is close to the Western consciousness but alien to Russia," he says. "In essence, in my formulation, the court has said there is one type of art that is degenerate and another type of art that is 'normal.' "

Samodurov and Vasilovskaya have 10 days to appeal their conviction. They say they are ready to pursue their case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)