(CN) – Moldovan artist Anatol Matasaru was arrested in 2013 for giving life to the thoughts of many: To protest government corruption, he created large wooden representations of male and female genitalia and pasted photographs of politicians and prosecutors on them. On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights found a suspended 2-year prison sentence the artist received for his work was “manifestly disproportionate” and likely to chill free expression.
Matasaru, now 48, staged his protest by exposing a wooden 6-foot erect penis and large vulva with photos of a politician and senior Moldovan prosecutors attached. After an hour, police removed the sculptures and hauled Matasaru off to jail.
In 2015, a court found the artist guilty of hooliganism and handed down a suspended two-year prison sentence. The court found Matasaru’s display of the sculptures in a public place obscene and said his likening of public officials to genitalia went beyond acceptable criticism. Additionally, the court noted Matasaru had staged similar exhibits in the past and the fines he’d been slapped with for doing so clearly had no deterring effect.
After unsuccessfully appeals, Matasaru found a sympathetic audience in a 7-judge panel of the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg, France-based court blasted the Moldovan courts, not for allowing a violation of Matasaru’s right to expression – which the court said may have been necessary to “restore balance to the various competing interests at stake” – but for adding a criminal sanction in the form of an albeit suspended prison sentence.
“The circumstances of the case present no justification whatsoever for the imposition of a prison sentence. Such a sanction, by its very nature, not only had negative repercussions on the applicant but it could also have a serious chilling effect on other persons and discourage them from exercising their freedom of expression,” the court wrote.
In the light of the above, the court concludes that although the national authorities’ interference with the applicant’s right to freedom of expression may have been justified by the concern to restore the balance between the various competing interests at stake, the criminal sanction imposed on him by the national courts was manifestly disproportionate in its nature and severity to the legitimate aim pursued by the domestic authorities. Thus, the domestic courts went beyond what would have amounted to a ‘necessary’ restriction on the applicant’s freedom of expression,” the panel found.
The EU rights court declined to award Matasaru damages, finding its judgment was “in itself sufficient just satisfaction.” The panel awarded just under $2,300 in costs, considerably less than the $7,300 the artist sought.