Experts guilty in Russian art trial

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A Russian court on Monday fined two organisers of a 2007 exhibition of provocative art up to 6,500 dollars after convicting them of inciting hatred in a case fiercely criticised by rights activists.

Art expert Andrei Yerofeyev and former museum director Yury Samodurov were fined respectively 200,000 rubles (6,483 dollars) and 150,000 rubles (4,862 dollars) but escaped jail sentences.

The exhibition included a print of Jesus with the head of Mickey Mouse and a spoof ad for Coca-Cola sloganed "This is my Blood", which visitors had to view through peepholes.

The prosecution had called for the men to serve three years in jail over the 2007 "Forbidden Art" exhibition at Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Museum.

The two men "committed actions aimed at inciting hatred", judge Svetlana Alexandrova said in the verdict at the Tagansky district court.

The exhibition insulted the feelings of religious believers and was motivated by a "criminal intent" on the part of the accused men, the judge said.

An ultra-nationalist Orthodox group, Council of the People, filed a complaint and prosecutors opened an investigation. The pair were charged in 2008 with inciting religious hatred through abuse of their official positions.

Prominent Moscow gallery owner Marat Guelman called the guilty verdict "unexpected" since it followed criticism of the trial from the culture minister and even a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church.

"I thought this was a signal that reason would prevail and they would be acquitted," Guelman told AFP.

"This is a very difficult day today. The people who initiated this simply do not realise how terrible the consequences will be."

Russian contemporary artist German Vinogradov told AFP that the verdict contradicted freedoms enshrined in the Russian constitution.

"The decision was not unexpected. It's clear that it's a trend. It's clear that many people are against this art, but we have a constitution... We need to respect the constitution."

Yerofeyev said ahead of the ruling that the exhibition was not aimed at the Orthodox Church but simply to protest what he described as growing censorship in art.

"I thought that this would cause controversy with the ministry of culture and other institutions," he told AFP. "But not within the church or with fascists."

However Oleg Kassin, a representative of the Council of the People that brought the complaint, defended the legal action saying he had been disgusted by the exhibition which contained "anti-Christian" images.

"If you like expressing yourself freely, do it at home, invite some close friends," he told AFP.

Last week 13 renowned Russian artists, including Soviet-era dissidents, published an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev, saying "a guilty verdict ... would be a sentence for the whole of Russian contemporary art."

The support from some of Russian art's biggest names came after Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev spoke up for the defendants last month, saying they did not "cross the red line of the law."

Even the Russian Orthodox Church itself had given unexpected support to the defendants, with a spokesman saying "the prosecutor's demands seem excessive for our society, unjustified and possibly even harmful."

Yerofoyev, who headed the contemporary art department at the Tretyakov Gallery, organised the exhibition at Andrei Sakharov Museum, where Samodurov was director. Both men have since been dismissed from their posts.

© 2010 AFP

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