A Moscow court on Friday handed outspoken Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov a three-year suspended sentence following a fraud conviction denounced by his supporters as politically motivated.
Known for his daring statements and groundbreaking projects, Serebrennikov has angered Russian conservatives and criticised censorship of the arts in Russia, warning of a return "to the most pathetic Soviet practices".
"Serebrennikov's rehabilitation is possible without a real prison term," judge Olesya Mendeleyeva said, adding that the acclaimed theatre and film director would have to pay a fine and be on probation for three years.
Hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside the courthouse broke into applause on hearing news of the sentence.
"A huge thank you for your support and for the fact that you believe in my innocence," Serebrennikov, 50, told supporters, wearing sunglasses and a black facemask.
"Respect social distancing, do not infect each other. Because you have to fight for the truth," he said.
Prosecutors had asked for a six-year prison term for Serebrennikov, who was on Friday found guilty of misappropriating the equivalent of two million dollars in state funds meant for a theatrical project.
The judge had said that Serebrennikov and co-defendants Yury Itin and Konstantin Malobrodsky "carried out actions directed at personal enrichment" that misled employees of the culture ministry.
Itin and Malobrodsky were also given suspended sentences and ordered to pay fines.
The prosecution had been criticised in Russia and abroad as trying to clamp down on artistic freedom.
A fourth defendant in the case, Sofia Apfelbaum, was "unaware" of the fraud but had acted with negligence, the judge said. She was also given a fine but it was immediately rescinded.
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 spent more than a year and a half under house arrest but was finally allowed to return to work, leading many to believe the case would be dropped.
But on Friday, the judge backed charges 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.
"Kirill is devastated by the conviction but very happy to be going home," his lawyer Dmitry Kharitonov said.
- Arts trailblazer -
Olivier Py, the director of the Avignon Festival in France and a friend of Serebrennikov, denounced "a political trial, a return to the Stalinist USSR".
"It was necessary to send a clear message to all the dissidents. He is the one who pays the price but he fought for freedom of expression," he said.
With coronavirus restrictions still observed in Moscow, only a small number of people were allowed in the courtroom, but hundreds of supporters were gathered outside.
"Platforma was an incredible project, it gave huge opportunities to contemporary artists, composers, directors, actors who had nowhere to go," one of the supporters outside, actor Gladston Makhib, told AFP.
But traditionalists attacked Serebrennikov's work after he rebranded the Gogol Centre from a dusty venue to a top location on Moscow's cultural map.
One of Russia's most acclaimed directors, Serebrennikov has created works spanning from opera to theatre and film, with productions regularly winning awards.
Artistic figures abroad spoke out in his defence including Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen.
German arts figures including director Thomas Ostermeier gathered near the Russian embassy in Berlin Friday with a huge banner reading "Free Kirill", while Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert urged Moscow to respect freedom of artistic expression.