The conviction of a prominent human rights activist for sponsoring a controversial art exhibit highlights a climate of growing intolerance for freedom of expression in Russia, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial took place amid steadily growing concerns about Russia’s recent rollback of human rights and political pluralism.

Today a Moscow criminal court sentenced Yuri Samadurov, the director of the Sakharov Museum, to pay a fine of 100,000 Rubles (approximately U.S.$3,600) on charges of “inciting religious enmity” for organizing a controversial art exhibit about religion in Russia, which the Russian Orthodox Church found offensive. The court also sentenced the exhibition curator Lyudmila Vasilovskaia to pay the same amount.

“The conviction of Yuri Samodurov is an unacceptable restriction on freedom of expression”, said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “It sets a dangerous precedent for state censorship of art and public discussion.”

The exhibit, entitled “Caution, Religion!,” opened at the Sakharov Museum in January 2003 and contained a number of controversial works of art about the role of religion in Russian society. Four days after its opening, a group of Russian Orthodox believers ransacked it. Charges of vandalism filed by the museum were quickly dropped amid strong political pressure to investigate the allegedly blasphemous nature of the artworks on display.

At the insistence of the Russian Orthodox Church, the state prosecutor charged the exhibit organizers with inciting religious hatred and offending the feelings of religious believers, under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code. The trial started on June 16, 2004. Human Rights Watch said that the case highlights the intimate relationship between the state and the Orthodox Church, an institution that now appears to be emerging as a force capable of censoring expression with religious content.

Human Rights Watch said that the prosecution of Samodurov, Vasilovskaia and Mikhailchuk is the latest in a long series of attempts by Russian authorities to undermine freedom of expression – one of the main achievements of the post-Soviet era. Recent rollbacks in human rights and democratic pluralism include the closing of independent television stations, politically motivated libel charges against the print media, ongoing attacks on nongovernmental organizations, and dubious espionage cases against journalists and scientists apparently aimed at chilling academic discourse on sensitive topics.

“This trial highlights disturbing questions about Russia’s commitment to core human rights principles,” said Denber. “Works of art should never serve as grounds for criminal prosecution, let alone punishment – regardless of subject matter or content.”