Top Russian director to appear in court on fraud charge

Maria ANTONOVA
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Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov has denied the fraud charges against him

Acclaimed Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov was due to appear before a judge Wednesday after being charged with fraud in a case that has sent shockwaves through the arts community.

The director denounced the charges against him as "absurd" after investigators detained him in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday and drove him to the Investigative Committee offices in Moscow, later sending him to jail ahead of the hearing.

A district court in Moscow is set to decide after 0900 GMT whether Serebrennikov, who heads the Gogol Centre theatre and has staged works at the legendary Bolshoi, will be put behind bars for the duration of the case.

The Investigative Committee, which probes serious crimes, accuses him of defrauding the state of at least 68 million rubles ($1.15 million, 977,000 euros) in arts funding from 2011 to 2014 on a side project called Platform.

The director says the allocated money was used as intended for the project, but the charges could lead to a 10-year prison term if he is convicted.

The case has sparked outrage and fear about shrinking artistic freedoms in Russia, with some calling it a demonstration of force against liberal culture ahead of next year's presidential election, in which President Vladimir Putin is expected to run for office again.

Serebrennikov's detention "in a largely absurd case... is a signal to the creative part of society from the authorities," business daily Vedomosti said in an editorial.

- 'Unconvincing' case -

Arts figures had spoken out in support of Serebrennikov following the raid on his apartment and theatre in May, when he was declared a witness in the fraud case. His travelling passport was confiscated.

Chairman of the Russian Theatre Union Alexander Kalyagin said on Tuesday he had written to the Investigative Committee vouching for Serebrennikov and asking not to put him behind bars.

A spokeswoman at the court told TASS news agency that the Investigative Committee has petitioned for the director to be put under house arrest.

"We believe such treatment of Kirill Serebrennikov is unacceptable," news website Meduza wrote in an editorial, saying the case against him is "unconvincing" because it claims that a play which received wide acclaim in Russia and abroad was never staged.

The director was taken to police cells on Tuesday evening with "green walls, single-use sheets and single-use slippers," independent Dozhd channel reported after visiting him in custody with a rights monitor.

Serebrennikov was appointed in 2012 to head an ailing and unpopular Soviet-era theatre, remaking it into a contemporary venue now called the Gogol Centre, where he put on his own radical stagings as well as hosting film and dance festivals.

He has spoken out against growing censorship in the arts while himself being scorned by conservative circles, and Russian culture minister Vladimir Medinsky has criticised his interpretation of classic works.

Despite the criticisms he is largely a mainstream culture figure, with his ballet A Hero of Our Time at the Bolshoi Theatre receiving the country's most prestigious theatrical award the Golden Mask in 2016.

However his latest Bolshoi project Nureyev, based on the life of ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev who defected to the West, was pulled three days before the premiere in an unprecedented move.

His film The Student which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year is a critique of growing religious fundamentalism in Russian society.

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