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article imageTop Russian director accused of fraud put under house arrest

By Victoria LOGUINOVA-YAKOVLEVA (AFP)     Aug 23, 2017 in World

Acclaimed Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov was put under house arrest 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 Moscow where he was charged by the Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes.

He was then held in jail ahead of the hearing on whether to keep him behind bars.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Basmanny district court in Moscow to support Serebrennikov, 47, who heads the city's Gogol Centre theatre and has staged shows at the legendary Bolshoi.

Judge Yelena Lenskaya ruled to confine the director under house arrest until October 19, an AFP correspondent reported from the courtroom, as people outside cried "Shame!" and whistled in protest.

But the judge added that Serebrennikov could continue going to work if the investigators allowed it.

Serebrennikov's lawyer Dmitry Kharitonov told journalists after the hearing that he would appeal, calling house arrest ruling "excessive and baseless".

Earlier in court, a representative of the Investigative Committee had told the judge that Serebrennikov was accused of a serious crime and might flee or put pressure on witnesses.

"He can hide from the investigation. He has real estate abroad," he argued.

The Investigative Committee, which probes serious crimes, accuses Serebrennikov 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.

Serebrennikov, standing in a courtroom cage clad in a denim jacket, jeans and baseball cap, said he was confused by the charges as he had "spent all the money given by the government on the project". He asked to be freed to continue working on his new film.

"I'm not going to run from the investigation, I'm an innocent person, an honest person," he said.

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

If convicted, he could be jailed for up to 10 years.

The case has sparked outrage and fears over shrinking artistic freedoms in Russia. Some critics have denounced it as a demonstration of force against liberal culture ahead of next year's presidential election, when 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 -

Already in May, leading arts figures spoke out in support of Serebrennikov after a raid on his apartment and theatre. He was declared a witness in the fraud case and had his passport confiscated.

The court ruling to restrict Serebrennikov's freedom came after the sister of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, publisher Irina Prokhorova, offered to pay any amount of bail.

Thirty cultural figures also vouched for Serebrennikov, including Bolshoi Theatre general director Vladimir Urin, film director Alexei German Jr. and the widow of Soviet dissident novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natalia.

"We believe such treatment of Kirill Serebrennikov is unacceptable," news website Meduza wrote in an editorial. It dismissed the case against him as "unconvincing", as investigators were claiming that a play which received wide acclaim in Russia and abroad was never in fact staged.

Culture minister Vladimir Medinsky on Wednesday insisted that the case had a strong basis.

"I know for sure that it's not a frame-up. I have a source," the minister told journalists.

The minister, who has tightened official control over theatre and film, nevertheless described the case as "very sad," state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Serebrennikov was appointed in 2012 to head an ailing and unpopular Soviet-era theatre, transforming it into a contemporary venue now called the Gogol Centre. As well as staging his own innovative productions, he hosted film and dance festivals.

He has spoken out against growing censorship in the arts while himself being scorned by conservative figures including Medinsky, who has criticised his reinterpretation of classic works.

He has nevertheless won accolades from the cultural establishment for more mainstream works. His ballet A Hero of Our Time at the Bolshoi Theatre won the country's most prestigious theatrical award, the Golden Mask, in 2016.

However his latest Bolshoi project Nureyev, a ballet based on the life of legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev who defected to the West, was pulled three days before the premiere in July, ostensibly because it wasn't ready, in an unprecedented move.

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