Russia convicts art experts over exhibition

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A Russian court on Monday convicted the organisers of a provocative 2007 art exhibition of inciting hatred, fining them up to 6,500 dollars 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 prosecution had called for the men to serve three years in jail over the "Forbidden Art" exhibition at Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Museum aimed at exploring the limits of freedom of expression.

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.

"These shameful verdicts are yet another blow to freedom of expression in Russia. Such judgements have no place in a state supposedly ruled by law," Nicola Duckworth of Amnesty International said in a statement.

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

But Yerofeyev expressed his relief at escaping a jail term.

"It is primarily a compromise verdict which, thank God, does not put me in jail," Yerofeyev told AFP outside the court. "The decision surely comes from the government or the prime minister, I am absolutely sure of it."

The men were charged in 2008 after an ultra-nationalist Orthodox group, the Council of the People, complained the exhibition insulted religious believers.

A spokesman for the Council of the People called the fines too mild a punishment. "It's too weak a sentence," said Oleg Kassin. "The punishment should have been harsher."

Dozens of his supporters, many elderly women, held icons outside the packed courtroom and shouted "Shame!" after the sentence was announced.

A senior monk in the Russian Orthodox Church, Archimandrite Tikhon, praised the verdict.

"Offending religious and national feelings is unacceptable and it's important that the court handed down a sentence condemning such acts," he told the Interfax news agency.

In surreal scenes, anarchic art group Voina (War) expressed its support for Samodurov and Yerofeyev by releasing thousands of giant cockroaches in the court building, news agencies reported.

Prominent Moscow gallery owner Marat Guelman called the guilty verdict "unexpected" since it followed criticism of the trial by 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."

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."

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.

Samodurov was fined in 2005 on the same charges of inciting religious hatred after organising another exhibition called "Warning, Religion!"

© 2010 AFP

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