- Associated Press - Monday, July 12, 2010

MOSCOW (AP) - Two Russian curators who angered the Russian Orthodox Church with an exhibition that included images of Jesus Christ portrayed as Mickey Mouse and Vladimir Lenin were convicted Monday of inciting religious hatred and fined, but not sentenced to prison.

The case of Yuri Samodurov, 58, and Andrei Yerofeyev, 54, has been closely watched by human rights activists. The decision by a Moscow court could sidestep the possibility of an international outcry over imprisoning the two respected art-world figures, but is unlikely to stem concerns about the growing influence of the church and the specter of Soviet-style censorship returning.

“This conviction means our government is following a dangerous path for a so-called democracy,” Samodurov said in the courtroom right after the hearing. He said he couldn’t pay the fine and would appeal the verdict, which took Judge Svetlana Alexandrova just over two hours to deliver in a packed and sweltering courtroom.

Alexandrova said she took into account the defendants’ ages and families in deciding against incarcerating them.

The curators were convicted for their 2007 exhibit entitled “Forbidden Art” at the Sakharov Museum, a human rights center named after celebrated dissident physicist and Nobel peace prize laureate Andrei Sakharov.

The two could have been sentenced to up to three years in prison, but were ordered only to pay fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($6,500).

Artists and activists had appealed to the Kremlin to put a stop to the prosecution. Even Russia’s culture minister said the two men did nothing to break the law against inciting religious hatred. Other curators have promised to display the exhibit to support the two defendants.

But the prosecutors, backed by a resurgent Orthodox Church enjoying its best relations with the Kremlin since the Soviet break up, refused to back down.

After Monday’s verdict there were brief scuffles outside the court as the defendants’ supporters clashed with Orthodox activists angry that the defendants were set free.

“This can’t be allowed to stand,” said church activist Leonid Semyonovich, dressed in black and holding a silver cross nailed to a wooden plinth. “Society must be protected from these people. We wage spiritual war on them and will hound them out of Russia.”

The religious activists’ chants of “Disgrace! Disgrace!” were drowned out by “Bravo! Bravo!” from supporters.

In the years after the 1991 Soviet collapse, the Russian Orthodox Church has grown into a powerful institution that claims more than 100 million followers. It has vocally criticized tolerance of homosexuality, abortion and multiparty democracy, while critics have accused top clerics of involvement in shady business deals and corruption.

Samodurov, who was the museum’s director from its founding in 1996 until he stepped down in 2008, had once been convicted of inciting religious hatred and fined the equivalent of $3,600 for an exhibit in 2003 called “Caution: Religion!”

Yerofeyev is a former head of contemporary art at the State Tretyakov Gallery, one of Russia’s most renowned museums.

The 2007 exhibit was closed a few days after it opened after a group of altar boys defaced many of the contemporary paintings, which used religious allusions to express attitudes toward religion, culture and the state.

Religious ultranationalist groups won the support of the Russian Orthodox Church in pushing prosecutors to bring charges in 2008 and then kept up their pressure on the two curators throughout the trial.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International said Monday it condemns the conviction.

“These shameful verdicts are yet another blow to freedom of expression in Russia,” Nicola Duckworth, the group’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director, said in a statement. “Such judgements have no place in a state supposedly ruled by law.”

Another court case also could be looming in Russia involving nationalists and an artist.

Moscow contemporary artist Lena Hades said she has been interrogated by district prosecutors for allegedly inciting hatred against Russia with two paintings that show the country in a negative light.

Hades said the investigator had a “huge” file with printouts of her comments in livejournal, an online diary website, and previous exhibits. She said she is being threatened with up to two years in prison, and that the case started after nationalists filed more than 300 complaints against her.

She is awaiting word of any charges.

___

AP writer Khristina Narizhnaya contributed to this report.

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