by Edward Kline, president The Andrei Sakharov Foundation (USA)
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the death of dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov. In 1968, he wrote that "intellectual freedom is essential to human society--freedom to receive and impart information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate, and freedom from pressure by authority and prejudice." In today's Russia, Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Erofeyev are still engaged in a struggle for intellectual freedom.
It has been eight months since Yuri Samodurov, a human rights activist and former Director of the Sakharov Center in Moscow, and Andrei Erofeyev, freshly dismissed from his position as a curator at the State Tretyakov Gallery, were put on trial for allegedly violating Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code (inciting national and religious hatred) by organizing the "Forbidden Art--2006" exhibition. The works displayed had been refused by other museums; the purpose of the exhibition was to study "the nature and tendencies of institutional censorship in the field of culture."
In 2005, in a similar case that was criticized by domestic and international human rights groups, Samodurov was found guilty of incitement to hatred for organizing "Caution, religion!," an exhibition which included paintings and other art critically examining the intersection of religion with commercial interests, politics, and popular culture. Samodurov escaped with a fine then, but only after a lengthy and degrading trial. It is possible that Erofeyev and Samodurov will be sentenced to terms in labor camp if found guilty in the current non-jury trial.
More than one hundred witnesses are testifying against the defendants, quite a few producing word-for-word matching statements. They accuse Erofeyev and Samodurov of inciting religious hatred, even though many admit they did not see the exhibition--they were simply told that it was blasphemous and incited hatred of Russian Orthodox beliefs. It seems Erofeyev and Samodurov are blamed for everything under the sun: damaging public morals, "recrucifying Jesus," undermining "the psychological health" of those who saw the art works. Simply put, the trial clearly violates the letter and spirit of the rule of law.
I have known Yuri Samodurov for nineteen years. He is an honest person and a dedicated, energetic, fearless, compassionate, law-abiding human rights activist. Erofeyev and he committed no crime. They did nothing that is not permitted by the Constitution of the Russian Federation. We are witnessing yet another misuse of the antiextremist legislation to target human rights activists and other nonviolent activists who are critical of the government.
This drawn-out prosecution is an illegitimate effort to punish people for exercising their constitutionally protected right to free expression. A dismissal of the charges or a not-guilty verdict should promptly end the trial of Samodurov and Erofeyev.