Moscow’s Tverskoi District judge sided with prosecution arguments presented in court that the low-budget movie production “promoted the rise of religious intolerance in Russia.”
The court will now pass on the ruling to the justice ministry for addition to Russia’s disputed national list of “extremist material” whose distribution is prosecuted and in most cases leads to time in jail.
State representatives argued that the film and its shorter 14-minute trailer to the anti-Islam that was posted on the Internet in July “promoted the rise of religious intolerance in Russia” and would “foment religious hatred and strife.”
The decision coincided with strong words of support for a ban by the visiting culture minister of Iran, which still has relatively tight relations with Russia despite the standoff over its nuclear drive.
“This film has no value while insulting the holy Prophet in the name of free speech,” Interfax quoted Iranian minister Mohammad Hosseini as saying. “That means a few people want to be free to insult half-a-billion Muslims.”
But Russian human rights officials and activist urged the authorities to back free expression and not use the controversy to further clamp down on rights under President Vladimir Putin.
Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin testified at the hearing that he was against the film’s prohibition while a group of artists and media and culture personalities urged Putin not to be swayed by the global militant attacks on US targets.
“The darkest forces of global terrorism are trying to scare our civilisation and force us to accept their will,” reads the open letter to Putin.
“Ban neither this film nor any other works of art that disturb religious extremists,” it urged.
Prominent art gallery owner and campaigner Marat Gelman said he was especially worried that the decision could be used to shut down Russia’s outlets of YouTube.
Russia has been rocked by nearly two decades of almost continuous violence in the Muslim North Caucasus region of Chechnya and its neighbouring republics that are witnessing a swell in Islamist unrest.
Putin launched Russia’s second post-Soviet war against Chechnya while serving as prime minister in 1999.
He has since repeatedly pointed to the danger of the more fervent strains of Islam spreading across the country to historically peaceful regions further north and instead promoted more moderate strains of Islam. Chechnya became the first Russian region to ban the film on Friday.
Yet Russia has not seen the deadly protests such as the ones witnessed outside the US consulate in Libya that claimed the life of Washington’s envoy and three other officials.
Russian officials have also made a point of promoting Russia as a tolerant society where 20 million Muslims blend peacefully into a nation of 142 million with more than 100 other ethnic groups.
The human rights ombudsman Lukin said he would consider an appeal of the verdict because it was based on the testimony of hand-picked experts who were not challenge by any representative of the defence.
A Russian representative for the New York-based Human Rights Watch freedom organisation also called the ruling excessive.
“I have no doubt that this film offends the senses of the faithful,” Tatyana Lokshina was quoted as saying by Interfax. “But a total ban goes against the principles of free speech.”