Acclaimed Russian director convicted but not sent to prison

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Russian film and theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus, leaves the Meshchansky court after hearings in Moscow, Russia, Friday, June 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

MOSCOW – A Moscow judge convicted an acclaimed Russian theater director of embezzling state funds and imposed a three-year suspended sentence Friday in a case widely seen as politically motivated.

Kirill Serebrennikov, 50, one of the most prominent theater and film directors in Russia, and his associates were found guilty of fraud and embezzling 129 million rubles (over $1.8 million) of state funding for a theater project.

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The judge, saying that “reformation is possible without a real (prison) term," gave Serebrennikov and two other defendants suspended sentences, fines and ordered them to repay the embezzled funds. Prosecutors had requested a 6-year prison term for Serebrennikov.

A fourth defendant, former government official Sophia Apfelbaum, was convicted of negligence and fined; the fine was immediately lifted because of a statute of limitations.

The funds were for staging several productions, and investigators initially alleged that the director and his associates stole money through a show that never saw the light of day. In fact, the production was staged to critical acclaim. The investigators later withdrew their claim, and have not since clarified where they believe money was stolen from.

Serebrennikov had rejected the accusations as absurd; many in Russia saw the charges as punishment for his anti-establishment views. His productions, ranging from drama to opera and movies, have mocked official lies, corruption and growing social conservatism.

The director spent almost two years under house arrest between August 2017 and April 2019. Several of his associates spent months in jail.

Serebrennikov’s arrest sent shock waves throughout the country. Top members of the Russian artistic community repeatedly appealed to President Vladimir Putin and other top government officials to drop the case, and many prominent international artistic figures joined the campaign.

A crowd of Serebrennikov's supporters gathered in front of the courthouse Friday and greeted the director with applause when he came out. Serebrennikov thanked them for their “believing in our innocence and understanding of what's going on.”

“The truth should be fought for,” he said.