(Moscow) - The Russian courts should quash a finding of guilt against a prominent human rights defender, Yuri Samodurov, former head of the Andrei Sakharov Museum, and a colleague, Andrei Erofeev, for inciting religious hatred in a 2007 art exhibit, Human Rights Watch said today.
The authorities have misused legislation targeting extremism to stifle artistic expression and independent civic activity, Human Rights Watch said. The organization called on the Russian authorities to issue a moratorium on such prosecutions and order a review of the law to make sure its use is consistent with Russia's human rights obligations.
"The Russian authorities have repeatedly used anti-extremism laws to silence independent opinion," said Allison Gill, Russia office director at Human Rights Watch. "The case against Samodurov and Erofeev highlights once again how precarious freedom of expression is in Russia. The appellate court should quash this decision and protect basic human rights."
On June 12, 2010, a Moscow district court found Samodurov and Erofeev, co-organizers of the "Forbidden Art-2006" exhibition at the Sakharov Museum in Moscow, guilty of inciting religious hatred, considered an extremist offense, and fined them 200,000 and 150,000 rubles respectively - approximately US$6,452 and $4,839. The judgment is subject to appeal to the Moscow city court. Samodurov and Erofeev told the press that they were planning an appeal.
Samodurov is the former director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Human Rights Center. "Forbidden Art-2006," opened in March 2007 and showed 23 provocative artworks that had been banned from several art galleries in Russia. In May 2008, following an investigation, the charge was brought against Samodurov, who had provided the venue for the show, and Erofeev, the exhibit's curator. The prosecutor's office contended that the works contained images that were denigrating and offensive to practitioners of Christianity. The prosecutor sought a three-year prison sentence for each of the defendants, the most severe punishment for this type of offense.
"Art, which may at times offend or be provocative, should be subject to taste, opinion, and debate, not to draconian laws that stifle expression," Gill said. "Indeed, freedom of expression is particularly necessary for controversial speech on taboo subjects to have the kind of debate that is essential in democratic societies."
Inciting religious hatred is an offense under article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code and is a key tool under Russia's anti-extremism legislation. It imposes criminal liability for incitement to hostility against ethnic, religious, and social groups.
While incitement to unlawful acts of discrimination, hostility, or violence may be outlawed under international law, the application of such a prohibition must be narrow and limited. Moreover, the speech must urge or promote the imminent execution of the unlawful acts. In Russia, however, the law is applied in an overly broad and arbitrary manner, both with respect to the type of speech prosecuted and the types of "social groups" the authorities purport to protect, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has documented several cases in which Russian authorities arbitrarily applied anti-extremism legislation to silence the political opposition and other critical voices. For example, in the summer of 2008, Savva Terentyev, a blogger from the town of Syktyvkar in northeastern Russia, wrote a negative comment about corruption of law enforcement officers as part of a blog discussion. He was convicted and given a one-year suspended prison sentence for incitement of hatred against policemen as a social group.
In 2005, Samodurov was also convicted and fined for inciting religious hatred after the museum showed another art exhibit, "Caution: Religion!" featuring contemporary artwork reframing religious symbols.
"President Medvedev has made numerous statements in support of civil society and freedom of speech," Gill said. "Today's verdict clearly demonstrates, though, that in reality the authorities continue to put pressure on Russian civil society and use the anti-extremism legislation as a tool of repression."
Medvedev should demonstrate practical support for civil society and freedom of speech by declaring a moratorium on the use of article 282, Human Rights Watch said. He should order a review of the law and its application to make certain it is interpreted in a way that is compatible with free speech under Russian human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.
Russia's international partners should call on the government to ensure freedom of expression and foster a normal working climate for civic society activists in the Russian Federation, Human Rights Watch said.