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Russia court overturns transgender woman's child "pornography" conviction

Moscow ­— A Russian court has overturned a guilty verdict that saw a transgender woman sentenced to three years in prison last year for sharing several erotic Japanese manga-style drawings featuring nude cartoon characters on social media. The conviction was denounced by human rights advocates who feared for her safety if she was sent to a men's prison.

An undated personal photo shows Michelle, a transgender Russian woman who has been jailed on child pornography charges. Family photo

The 53-year-old woman, known among friends as Michelle, has been undergoing hormone therapy for a couple years but is still legally male, so would have been sent to a men's prison had the sentence not been thrown out. She was freed Wednesday from a local detention facility for men after an upper court ruled in favor of her appeal, her legal advisor said in comments posted online.

Michelle was convicted last November in her hometown, the provincial city of Bryansk, about 200 miles southwest of Moscow, on child pornography charges for sharing the cartoons on her personal VK page, a popular Russian equivalent of Facebook. The investigators said the images Michelle posted were used to "meet persons of non-traditional sexual orientation."

"The verdict has been canceled as unfair, the case was sent for a retrial," lawyer Maksim Olenichev, who was part of the defense team, said Wednesday. He linked the ruling to a large campaign organized by Russia's LGBTQ activists in support of Michelle. 

It was not immediately clear on what grounds the Bryansk Regional Court had overturned the lower court's November verdict. Michelle is likely to face the same charges in her retrial, but under a different judge. The Bryansk court was expected to release a full report detailing its decision in the coming days.

The lower court had convicted her of "distributing pornography depicting minors" for sharing the erotic cartoons. Investigators concluded that she had posted the images to "meet persons of non-traditional sexual orientation," according to the charges seen by CBS News.

When the charges were made public, Human Rights Watch called them "bogus," and friends and activists voiced concern that a men's prison could effectively make her three-year prison sentence a "death sentence." 

Human Rights Watch released a series of video... 02:06

"She will be either killed or heavily beaten there," predicted Lada Preobrazhenskaya, a trans blogger and friend of Michelle's who helped fight the charges. She cited the poor human rights record of Russia's prison system and low tolerance towards LGBTQ individuals among inmates, and Russians in general. 

The defense team argued that no one had been defined as a victim in the case, as the depicted "minors" were cartoon characters whose legal age could not be established.  

Michelle will remain free pending her retrial, per the ruling handed down on Wednesday. 

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