MOSCOW: Award-winning Russian film and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov was given a suspended three-year jail sentence on Friday after being convicted of embezzlement, a much more lenient punishment than his supporters had expected.
Many in the liberal cultural establishment saw the case as a bid to silence someone whose work mocked the role of the church and state in Russian society, and leading critic of the Kremlin Alexei Navalny dismissed it as a fabrication.
The 50-year-old artistic director of Moscow's avant-garde Gogol Centre theatre was found guilty of leading a criminal group with the colleagues that stole 129 million roubles (US$1.87 million) in state funds. Prosecutors had demanded six years' jail, while the defendants denied any wrongdoing.
The court ordered them to return the allegedly stolen funds, and fined Serebrennikov 800,000 roubles (US$11,500).
Hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside the court cheered the director and bunched around him as he left the court in a baseball cap, sunglasses and anti-coronavirus face mask.
"Observe social distancing! Don't infect each another - because we need to fight for the truth!" he told them.
The Kremlin declined to comment. It said it had noted anger among some cultural figures, but that there was no sign of broad public tension around the case.
Serebrennikov's lawyer said he planned to appeal and seek an acquittal, the RIA news agency reported. It said the court had maintained a lien on some property and money belonging to the defendants.
Navalny, who built his profile by campaigning against establishment corruption, said it was hard to see the outcome as a victory, despite the unexpectedly lenient sentence.
"Three years suspended for Serebrennikov is criminal punishment for a deliberately fabricated case," he tweeted.
(US$1 = 69.2715 roubles)
(Additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov, Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Alexander Marrow, Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Kevin Liffey)