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Sakharov Center Director Yuri Samodorov Sentencing Imminent:
Hate Crime Targets Charged with “Incitement”
The director of Moscow’s Sakharov Museum and Public Center, Yuri Samodorov, faces up to three years imprisonment in a penal colony on charges of “inciting religious hatred” and offending Orthodox believers. Also charged and facing imprisonment, are the museum’s curator, Ludmila Vasilovskaya and artist Anna Mikhalchuk. The prosecution has also requested the court to issue bans on Samodorov and Vasilovskaya holding office in organizations and to order the destruction of all of the works of art shown in the exhibition. A verdict is expected on March 28 in Moscow’s Taganskaya District Court.
The charges were brought after religious zealots attacked the museum’s “Caution! Religion” exhibit in January 2003, destroying art works and painting slogans. A Moscow court declined to proceed with charges of “hooliganism” brought against the attackerson the grounds that the exhibition had provoked their actions. In December 2003, Samodorov, Vasilovskaya, and Mikhalchuk were indicted as the principal organizers of an exhibition described as “insulting and offensive to Christianity in general and to Orthodox Christianity and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular.”
“The three are being prosecuted solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression,” said Michael McClintock, Director of Program of Human Rights First, “and for their leadership of Russia’s only human rights gallery, a center of critical thought on Chechnya.”
The prosecution was based on hate crimes legislation in the criminal code that should protect minorities’ freedom of expression and religion and provide safeguards against threats and physical assaultbut that has been seized upon as a political tool to suppress dissent and to advance religious intolerance. It comes in the context of a rising tide of hate crimes by extremist nationalist, religious, and racist groups in the Russian Federations, and attacks on those investigating these attacks.
In August 2003, ethnologist Nikolai Girenko, head of the Minority Rights Commission of the Saint Petersburg Scientific Union, testified as an expert witness in the proceedings against the director of the Sakharov Center. As perhaps the leading expert on hate crimes and extremist groups in Russia, Girenko was well placed to lend expertise both on the threat to freedom of expression posed by religious extremists and on incitement to religious hatred. On June 19, 2004 Nikolai Girenko was shot at his home in St. Petersburg by unknown assailants. Police investigating the case said they would consider his testimony in a number of controversial cases, including the Sakharov Center controversy, as possible motives in the murder. No progress has been reported in the murder inquiry.
Human Rights First has written to President Vladimir Putin to request that should any of the three be convicted, that he issue immediate pardons on their behalf. In addition, we urged that immediate measures be taken to ensure that laws designed to combat extremism and hate crimes not again be misused to foment religious intolerance and stifle freedom of expression. Finally, we requested immediate safeguards against further assaults on the Sakharov Museum and Public Center and its personnel.
The Sakharov Center houses Russia’s only museum dedicated to human rights issues and has held prominent shows of photographs, children’s drawings, and other materials highlighting abuses of the past as well as abuses in Chechnya today. Elena Bonner, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist Andrei Sakharov, is the chair of the Sakharov Center. In an interview in early 2003, Bonner observed that ‘The events around the exhibition discredit the Russian Orthodox Church, just as the fatwah condemning Salman Rushdie to death discredited Islam.” She said “the attackers had come to the museum prepared to be offended, with cans of spray paint in their pockets.”
The “Caution! Religion” show included painting and other art examining the intersection of religion with commercial interests, corruption, politics, and popular culture. Artists in some cases parodied religious iconography in a way that some would clearly find offensive. The Sakharov Center’s press statement explained the exhibition’s intent: that “the name of the exhibition gives a clear sense of the dual nature of its scheme: the exhibition is both a call to a careful, delicate and respectful attitude towards religion, belief and believers, and also a warning sign: when it comes to religious fundamentalism and a union of religion with state obscurantism."
The January 18 attack on the “Caution! Religion” exhibition was attributed to a group of young acolytes from the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Pyzhi. In a letter to President Vladimir Putin of February 2, 2003, the Public Committee for the Moral Revival of the Fatherland, chaired by Alexander Shargunov, archpriest of St. Nicholas in Pyzhi, placed the attack on the Sakharov Center in a framework of both religion and extreme nationalist politics. Samodurov’s crime, by this account, was both having hosted the “Caution! Religion” exhibition and “anti-social activity,” including having provided a forum critical of the war in Chechnya. In calling for Putin to close the center, it said:
“For the entire period of its existence the [Sakharov] Center has promoted anti-social values and defended bandits and criminals, especially Chechens. The Center’s activities are clearly aimed at corrupting the morals of Russian society and the Russian army. They cunningly use the slogan “Stop the War in Chechnya” for this purpose. The very peak of the Center’s anti-social activity was the blasphemous exhibition “Caution! Religion.” In our view, it was not accidental that marginal “politicians” offered their Museum’s exhibition hall to marginal “artists.”
“The prosecutions that followed the attack on the ‘Caution! Religion’ exhibition tragically victimized the targets of hate crimes rather than the perpetrators,” said McClintock. “This action has chilled freedom of thought and religion in Russia and threatens to destroy the human rights institutions that provide a forum for independent discussion and debate.”
For the past quarter century, Human Rights First (the new name of Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) has worked in the United States and abroad to create a secure and humane world by advancing justice, human dignity and respect for the rule of law. We support human rights activists who fight for basic freedoms and peaceful change at the local level; protect refugees in flight from persecution and repression; help build a strong international system of justice and accountability; and make sure human rights laws and principles are enforced in the United States and abroad.
Contact: Nicky Lazar, (212) 845-5220 / lazarn@HumanRightsFirst.org
For immediate release, March, 24, 2005