MOSCOW (Reuters) - The curators of an art exhibit that mixed religious icons with sexual and pop-culture images face up to three years in prison in a case that is testing the tolerance of Russia’s government and its dominant church.
A Moscow court is to issue a verdict Monday in the trial of Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, charged with debasing religious beliefs and inciting religious hatred for the 2007 show Forbidden Art.
The trial, which recessed late last month, was marred by rowdy shouts from ultranationalists and what Yerofeyev said were thinly veiled threats to kill him and Samodurov if they are found innocent.
“The state is trying to selectively censor art,” Yerofeyev said, accusing the authorities of encouraging or supporting ultranationalists who took issue with the exhibit.
Amnesty International said a conviction would make the defendants Russia’s only prisoners of conscience, and cultural figures have appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev to intervene and have the charges dropped.
A guilty verdict would be a “a step toward the introduction of cultural censorship in Russia,” they said in a letter.
The exhibit was mounted at Moscow’s Sakharov Museum, which is named after 1975 Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov and often documents the human rights abuses of the Soviet era.
Among the art on display were works depicting an Orthodox Christian icon adorned with Mickey Mouse; a Russian general raping a soldier and a Soviet-era Order of Lenin medal over Christ’s head.
The works were placed behind a peep-holed veil so only those who wanted to view them could, and photography was banned to prevent the imagery from being broadly distributed.
The dominant Russian Orthodox Church has experienced a major revival since the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union, and its increasingly close ties with the state have caused concern among nonbelievers and members of minority faiths.
Church spokesman Vladimir Vigilyansky suggested on Ekho Moskvy radio that the church supported the charges but said prison would be “a very severe and harsh sentence.”
“It is normal for society to protect itself against rifts inside the country, so that people unite and do not take up arms against or offend each other,” he said, but he added that imprisonment “for this crime would doubtless be going too far.”
Sergei Nikitin, director of Amnesty International in Russia, said the charges violated a Russian law that guarantees the right to freedom of expression.
Jana Kobzova, a London-based analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations think-tank, said a guilty verdict would be “a bad omen” for Russia’s relations with the West and “might lead to reconsideration of ties” by the European Union.
Yerofeyev told Reuters he and Samodurov were being targeted by “neo-Nazis using the Church as cover.” He said he feared he could be attacked in the event of a not-guilty verdict.
“In court, the neo-Nazi group that brought the case against us frequently shouted that if justice was not done there it would be done outside the courtroom,” he said.
He said ultranationalists hollered in the courtroom that he might face a similar fate as that of Anna Alchuk, a Russian artist who mysteriously drowned in Berlin’s Spree river in 2008.
Editing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Boyle