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Pyotr Pavlensky

Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky gets three-year prison sentence, but walks free for time served

Verdict was handed down in dramatic Paris hearing, which Pavlensky dedicated to the Marquis de Sade

Pyotr Pavlensky poses in front of a Bank of France building after setting fire to the window gates as part of a performance in Paris © AP Photo/Capucine Henry

A French court on Thursday found the Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky guilty of setting fire to the facade of a state bank building in 2017 and handed down a three-year sentence with two years suspended, but released him immediately due to time served in pre-trial detention.

According to media reports, the hearing in Paris was rather dramatic. Pavlensky, 34, burst out with a statement saying that he was dedicating the trial to the Marquis de Sade, the 18th-century political and sexual revolutionary, to which his court translator responded that she was quitting and a recess was declared until a replacement was found.

Pavlensky also reiterated his stand against the Bank of France building that he had targeted after he fled Russia.

“The Bank de France at the site of the Bastille is a precedent of monstrous mockery of the political history of France,” he said, according to gazeta.ru. “From this it follows that either the court should restore justice and rule to remove the Bank of France in place of the Bastille, drop all charges against me and recognise political art as permitted on the territory of France.”

Pavlensky came to France via Ukraine in January 2017, after fleeing sexual assault charges in Russia, where he had been put on trial in 2016 for setting fire to doors of the Federal Security Service, the former KGB headquarters on Lubyanka Square. He had gained international fame for graphic performance art directed against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin policies, most notably nailing his scrotum to Red Square in 2013.

Although France granted him and his then partner Oksana Shalygina political asylum in May 2017, they became harsh critics of the system there, including prisoner abuse.

Shalygina was also given a primarily suspended sentence on Thursday and will not serve prison time.

Le Figaro reported that before announcing the ruling, the judge spoke of its importance in defining relations between the free expression of artists and the law, and quoted Jean Cocteau. Nonetheless, in addition to the sentences, Pavlensky and Shalygina must pay €18,678 in pecuniary and €3,000 in non-pecuniary damages to the Bank of France. “Never!”, Pavlensky responded.

Russian state media and some social media commentators accused France of hypocrisy for trying Pavlensky after condemning Russia for doing the same.