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3 Go on Trial Over Artistic Freedom

Anatoly Medetsky, The Moscow Times

In the back row, Mikhalchuk, Vasilovskaya and Samodurov talking with Shmidt, right, and their other lawyers at the start of the trial at the Tagansky District Court on Tuesday.

Three human rights advocates connected to the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Social Center went on trial Tuesday on charges of inciting religious hatred with an art exhibition.

The case pits the increasing powerful Russian Orthodox Church against artistic freedom, and the Moscow court's verdict could be a turning point for a basic democratic right in Russia.

"This is a landmark trial," said Lev Ponomaryov, head of the organization For Human Rights. "Losing it would be seen as a reason to further prosecute" artists and others for how they express themselves.

On trial are Sakharov Center executive director Yury Samodurov; the center's exhibitions organizer, Lyudmila Vasilovskaya; and Anna Mikhalchuk, a member of the Literary Union of Russia who helped set up "Caution, Religion," the exhibit that angered the Orthodox church. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison.

The defendants walked into the Tagansky District Court past a row of supporters holding banners saying, "Jesus Didn't Teach Vengeance" and "No to Inquisition."

Orthodox believers and nationalists wearing camouflage or T-shirts reading "We Are Russians" also attended the trial.

The controversy over "Caution, Religion" Ц an exhibit of 42 artworks by 42 artists Ц started when six Orthodox parishioners vandalized several of the works on Jan. 18, 2003, just four days after it opened. They splattered paint on the exhibit, broke several artworks, and scrawled "Sacrilege" and "You Hate Orthodoxy" on the center's walls and several works.

One item on display showed Jesus' face drawn on a red Coca-Cola logo next to the words "This Is My Blood." Another consisted of three pieces: a Russian Orthodox-style icon with a hole instead of a head and a table with books, such as the Bible and works by Karl Marx, set opposite a camera on a tripod.

Samodurov unsuccessfully sued the six men for damaging the exhibit in the Tagansky District Court. Four were released for lack of evidence Ц even though police detained them in the Sakharov Center. The other two testified that they had been so offended by the exhibit that they had felt compelled to act according to their beliefs. The Orthodox church held a huge campaign in their support during the trial, and the court acquitted them in August.

Then the case turned against Samodurov and the other exhibition organizers. The State Duma passed a resolution condemning the exhibition, and the court ordered prosecutors to investigate whether it incited religious hatred. Charges were filed against the three in December and January.

Samodurov said the charges reflect the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. "This trial would have been impossible several years ago," he said in an interview Monday. "But now the Orthodox church has laid its claim to having an exceptional position" in Russia.

"Only the Russian Orthodox Church was able to fill the niche" left by the collapse of the Communist ideology and the Soviet Union, he said.

He said "Caution, Religion" was intended to provoke thought on the role of religion in the modern world. Most of the participating artists were Russian, so they dedicated their works to Russia's most prominent religion, Orthodoxy, he said. Other participants were from Cuba, Japan and the United States.

Jesus on the Coca-Cola logo, for example, invited thought about the commercialization of religion, he said. "We often hear about priests blessing restaurants," he said.

Duma Deputy Alexander Chuyev, who sponsored the parliamentary resolution, said the exhibit was an insult to religious symbols. "This can't be called art," he said in a recent interview.

The case, read out to the court by a prosecutor Tuesday, said the exhibit used "methods of covert psychological manipulation, including the creation of associative links between the sacred and the low, the disgusting, the comic or the horrible."

The exhibit "insulted and humiliated the religious feelings of believers and nonbelievers who have an idea about the sanctity of the basic Christian symbols," the prosecutor said. It "humiliated the national dignity of a great number of believers," he said.

As the prosecutor read the case, Sakharov supporters in the courtroom whispered angry corrections to the Russian translations from English for some artwork names, such as calling the Last Supper "Posledny Uzhin" instead of "Tainaya Vecherya." They tittered when she interpreted the Russian abbreviation "XB," which stands for "Jesus has risen," as letters from the Latin alphabet.

Samodurov told the judge that he was baffled by the charges. "I don't understand who this exhibition hurt other than the artists and the center's employees," he said. The other two defendants agreed.

Samodurov's lawyer Yury Shmidt told the court that the charges had been improperly filed. He said Samodurov should not be tried for inciting religious hatred because prosecutors based the charge on Article 282 of the Criminal Code, which did not make it a punishable crime at the time the exhibit was running. The article was only amended in December.

Shmidt also said the charges are vague and do not specify exactly what prosecutors found wrong with the exhibit.

In addition, Shmidt dismissed the accusation that the exhibit had humiliated the national dignity of believers, saying religion and nationality are two different notions.

The judge adjourned the trial until Wednesday, when the court is to announce a ruling to Shmidt's objections.

The trial is expected to last at least two months.

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