(CN) – A Ukrainian teen who cooked breakfast on the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kiev to protest wasting natural resources was improperly detained but her arrest and conviction didn’t violate her right to expression, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.
In 2010, Anna Sinkova and three friends filmed themselves cooking on the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kiev. Sinkova, then 19, fried eggs while two of her friends cooked sausages to protest wasting natural gas to keep the flame burning. As these things are wont to do, the film made it to the internet.
Authorities arrested Sinkova, and in 2012 she was convicted of desecrating the monument. She received a three-year suspended prison sentence, though she did spend three months in pretrial detention because police said she was a flight risk.
Sinkova challenged her conviction before the European Court of Human Rights, which in a deeply divided opinion issued Tuesday found no violation of right to expression.
Ruling 4-3, the rights court said Ukraine’s prohibition on desecration of a memorial honoring war dead may hamper the expression of some, but for good reason – even if Sinkova’s intention was to highlight the waste of gas and the plight of veterans.
“The court cannot agree with the applicant’s submission that her conduct at the memorial could not be reasonably interpreted as contemptuous towards those in whose honor that memorial had been erected,” the majority wrote. “According to her logic, the only thing that mattered about the eternal flame was the natural gas required to keep it burning.
“However, eternal flames are a long-standing tradition in many cultures and religions most often aimed at commemorating a person or event of national significance, or serving as a symbol of an enduring nature. The one on which the applicant fried eggs is part of a monument commemorating soldiers who gave their lives defending their and the applicant’s country during the Second World War.
“There were many suitable opportunities for the applicant to express her views or participate in genuine protests in respect of the state’s policy on the use of natural gas or responding to the needs of war veterans, without breaking the criminal law and without insulting the memory of soldiers who perished and the feelings of veterans, whose rights she had ostensibly meant to defend,” the majority continued.
The rights court rejected comparisons to its previous cases, particularly one involving imprisonment for pouring paint on statues in Turkey. In that case, the individual served 13 years in prison while Sinkova didn’t serve a single day of her suspended sentence, the court noted.
The three dissenting judges called Sinkova’s actions “extremely provocative” but said the court’s long history of viewing satire as legitimate social commentary worthy of protection.
“The present judgment inevitably gives rise to the question of how far a contracting state may criminalize insults to memory and designate certain spaces and structures as ‘off-limits’ for individuals to exercise their right to protest and express their opinions,” the dissenting judges wrote. “There is a real risk of eroding the right of individuals to voice their opinions and protest through peaceful, albeit controversial, means.”
But the EU rights court unanimously agreed Sinkova’s pretrial detention of about three months was not justified given her crime, and awarded her about $4,900 in damages to be paid by the Ukrainian government.