Russian art curators spared jail after 'blasphemous' exhibition

Two Russian art curators who angered church leaders with an exhibition that included images of Christ as Mickey Mouse and Lenin were convicted today of inciting religious hatred, but escaped prison sentences.

The decision on Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev by a Moscow court could avoid the possibility of an international outcry over imprisoning them.

But it is unlikely to stem concerns about the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and the spectre of Soviet-style censorship returning.

The curators were convicted for their 2007 exhibit entitled "Forbidden Art" at the Sakharov Museum, a human rights centre 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 roubles (€5,164).

Artists and activists had appealed to the Kremlin to stop the prosecution. Even Russia's culture minister said the two men did nothing to break the law against inciting religious hatred.

But the prosecutors refused to back down.

Samodurov, who was the museum's director from its founding in 1996 until he stepped down in 2008, had already once been convicted of inciting religious hatred 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 ultra-nationalist 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.

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