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Freedom on Trial in Russia
In a trial that reveals the alarming fragility of fundamental freedoms in Russia, on March 28 a judge will issue a verdict in the case of Yuri Samodurov, Director of Moscow's Sakharov Center and Museum. Samodurov was charged with "inciting religious hatred" for organizing a controversial art exhibit at the Museum in January 2003, a show that was meant to be sharply critical of the public role of religion in contemporary Russia. If the prosecution is successful, Samodurov could receive a sentence of three years imprisonment while museum curator Ludmila Vasilovskaya could receive a sentence of two years, along with being banned from working in their respective professions. In a clear attack on freedom of expression, the prosecution has also demanded that all the show's paintings be destroyed.
In January 2003, we visited Moscow in our capacity as Commissioners on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency, to examine threats to religious freedom in Russia. While in Moscow, we visited the Sakharov Museum and saw the controversial exhibit, which had been vandalized two days earlier. We were shocked to see these works of art so violently defaced.
The exhibit featured 42 pieces of art, all intended to spur discussion about the role of religion in society. The exhibit was not meant as an attack on religion, but reflected the artists' views about the commercialization of religion in contemporary Russia. The show was seen by only 70 visitors before a crowd of young members of a radical parish of the Russian Orthodox Church defaced many of its paintings, slashing and spray painting over them, forcing the exhibit to close after just days. Although police detained the vandals on the spot, a judge later acquitted them of hooliganism because their violence allegedly had been "provoked" by the paintings.
In sharp contrast to the lenient official treatment of the vandals, in late 2003 Samodurov, and Vasilovskaya were officially indicted for organizing the exhibit which was deemed to be "insulting and offensive to Christianity in general and to Orthodox Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular." They were charged after the Russian State Duma - at the urging of the Russian Orthodox Church - adopted a resolution on February 3, 2003 which called on the Procurator General "to take the necessary measures" against the art show's organizers.
The resulting trial essentially penalizes the right to artistic expression. As individuals who have actively fought for religious freedom around the world, we know that freedom of religion cannot exist without freedom of expression. Freedom is always in danger when the right to think independently and creatively and express oneself and communicate with others is not only challenged, but treated as a criminal act.
We hope that the real purpose of this trial is not to force the closure of the Sakharov Center, one of the few institutions in Russia that is diligently documenting the human rights abuses of the Soviet era. Alexander Shargunov, a Russian Orthodox archpriest whose parishioners were the ones who reportedly defaced the paintings, wrote to President Putin on February 2, 2003, only a day before the Russian parliament's resolution, claiming that the Sakharov Center has "promoted anti-social values and defended bandits and criminals, especially Chechens," and urging Putin to close the Sakharov Center and Museum. Indeed, the Sakharov Center is a leader in documenting the on-going violence and gross human rights violations that have occurred during the decade-long conflict in Chechnya.
The trial has evoked intense public interest and media attention, partly for what it reveals about the current role of religion and freedom of expression in Russia today. The Russian Orthodox Church has played a unique role in the creation and history of the Russian state. But in justifying this violence, attempting to muzzle leading voices of dissent and ignoring core human rights provisions in the Russian constitution, this campaign puts freedom itself on trial.
We urge the Russian courts to uphold Russia's international human rights commitments and respect these fundamental freedoms.
FELICE D. GAER, DIRECTOR OF THE JACOB BLAUSTEIN INSTITUTE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS, AMERICAN JEWISH COMMITTEE
WILLIAM F. MURPHY, BISHOP OF ROCKVILLE CENTER, LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK