(New York, NY) — Prominent Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov and a group of co-defendants were convicted on baseless embezzlement charges today. PEN America said the conviction and sentences were yet another unjust, unwarranted attack on dissenters in Russia.

Serebrennikov, director of the Gogol theater in Moscow and a frequent critic of the Kremlin, faced charges of embezzlement that human rights advocates have called a thinly veiled effort at retaliation for his outspoken political criticism. On Friday, the Meshchansky court in Moscow handed Serebrennikov a three-year suspended sentence and a fine of 800,000 rubles ($11,500). The court also gave suspended sentences to his co-defendants Aleksei Malobrodsky (two years’ probation) and Yuri Itin (three years’ probation), with each paying fines of 300,000 rubles ($4,300) and 200,000 rubles ($2,900), respectively. All three were banned from heading cultural organizations;  Serebrennikov is still free to  join state-affiliated cultural outlets. The charges against a fourth defendant, Sofia Apfelbaum, were downgraded, with the court finding her guilty only of negligence and imposing no fines. 

“The Russian government must cease this campaign of intimidation against artists. While it’s a relief that Serebrennikov and the others will most likely not spend the next several years behind bars, their conviction and the limitations imposed on their artistic freedom are a manifestation of Russia’s increasing intolerance toward dissent,” said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America Eurasia program director. “Serebrennikov’s conviction relied on blatant fabrications and is broadly viewed as lacking any legal basis. The ruling is yet another blow to the alarming human rights situation in Russia, and sends a chilling message to Russian artists that their expression rights are limited. We condemn these convictions and call for a restoration of Kirill and his co-defendants’ freedom to pursue their creative work. ”

Known for his vocal criticism of the Putin government, Serebrennikov has spoken out on a wide variety of issues. He has criticized the persecution of LGBTQIA+ individuals, and has voiced alarm about increasing censorship—including the arrests of members of the punk collective Pussy Riot—and rising authoritarianism in Russia.

The verdict comes after nearly three years of criminal proceedings against the defendants, who were wrongfully charged with embezzling 129 million rubles ($1.86 million) for a project called Platform. Investigators claimed falsely that one of the Platform shows did not take place, despite its having been staged numerous times and a social media campaign from those who had attended, using the hashtag #ябылнаплатформе (I was at Platform).

PEN America’s Eurasia program supports champions of free expression in Russia and throughout the region. This verdict comes against the backdrop of an ongoing campaign against those who dare to dissent in Russia, and particularly against creative freedom. A day prior to the verdict in Serebrennikov’s case, PEN America’s Artists At Risk Connection (ARC) and partner organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the European Film Academy, released a statement calling on the Russian prosecutors to drop the charges. In 2019, PEN America’s World Voices Festival hosted the New York premiere of Serebrennikov’s film, Leto.