Russian court finds director Serebrennikov guilty of fraud

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Moscow (AFP)

A Moscow court on Friday convicted acclaimed Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov of fraud, after a case that supporters saw as a test of artistic freedom in Russia.

The three-year case which saw Serebrennikov accused of stealing about $2 million reached its finale despite nearly falling apart last year and hundreds of cultural figures in Russia and abroad speaking out in his support.

The judge ruled that Serebrennikov, 50, and two co-defendants were guilty of misappropriating state funds that financed a theatrical project called Platforma, which many say paved the way for other daring arts projects in Russia.

Serebrennikov and co-defendants Yury Itin and Konstantin Malobrodsky "carried out actions directed at personal enrichment" and acted as a group to mislead employees of the culture ministry, judge Olesya Mendeleyeva said, according to an AFP correspondent in the court.

A fourth defendant in the case, Sofia Apfelbaum, was "unaware" of the fraud, the judge said.

The prosecution this week asked the court to jail Serebrennikov for six years. Sentencing was expected after the judge had finished reading the verdict, which could take several hours or even days.

Serebrennikov, who heads one of Moscow's top theatre venues, the Gogol Centre, was arrested in 2017 but the case against him stalled last year when a judge handed it back to the prosecution due to "inconsistencies".

It restarted with a new judge, and the amount of the alleged fraud was slightly revised from 133 million rubles to 129 million rubles.

Serebrennikov was released after several days in jail and placed under house arrest and finally allowed to return to work, leading many to believe the case would be dropped.

But the judge on Friday backed claims by the prosecution that Serebrennikov masterminded the theft of state money allocated to the Platforma project he ran between 2011 and 2014.

Serebrennikov and his co-defendants insisted they are innocent.

- Censorship critic -

With coronavirus restrictions still observed in Moscow, only a small number of people were allowed in the courtroom, but hundreds of supporters gathered outside, greeting Serebrennikov with applause before the hearing.

He sat in the front row wearing a black facemask and sunglasses as the judge muttered through pages of the case, her voice barely audible.

Top arts figures have slammed the prosecution's claim that the Platforma project cost much less than the state funds provided.

Bolshoi Theatre director Vladimir Urin this week told daily newspaper Kommersant that the prosecution's estimate treated the lavish stagings in the project as small plays, considerably low-balling the figures "on purpose".

The defence has argued the project actually required more investment than the provided state funds.

One of Russia's most acclaimed directors, Serebrennikov has created works spanning from opera to theatre and film, with productions regularly winning awards.

He has criticised growing censorship of the arts in Russia, warning that "everything is returning to the most pathetic Soviet practices".

Artistic figures in Russia and abroad have spoken out in his defence including Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen.

Thousands this month signed an open letter to Russia's culture minister, Olga Lyubimova, asking her to drop the complaint against the defendants.