FILE - In this Friday, April 12, 2019 file photo, Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov walks to attend a…
FILE - Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov walks to a court hearing in Moscow, April 12, 2019. A Moscow court dismissed the case against an acclaimed director, two years after he was accused of embezzlement and put under house arrest.

MOSCOW - A controversial fraud case against Russia’s leading theater and movie director, Kirill Serebrennikov, was relaunched Friday by prosecutors in Moscow after a string of small legal wins this year upset their case.

The 50-year-old Serebrennikov and three co-defendants are accused of embezzling up to $2 million in public money from a theater project, an accusation they deny and describe as absurd.

The director, who last month received a major arts award from the French government, has been involved in anti-government protests, has warned about the growing influence of the Orthodox Church on Russian society and politics, and has protested arts censorship in Russia.

He denies any wrongdoing, and his supporters, including actors Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss, say the charges are politically motivated and fit a pattern of authorities retaliating against dissenting artists.

The relaunch of the prosecution came as another Moscow court Friday approved the Justice Ministry’s branding of opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as “a foreign agent.” Observers see this as a prelude to a possible closing of Navalny’s foundation, which has embarrassed Kremlin figures with investigative reports highlighting their extraordinary wealth and extensive property ownership.

FILE - Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, standing, is seen at the office of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) in Moscow, Russia, March 18, 2018.
FILE - Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, standing, is seen at the office of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) in Moscow, March 18, 2018.

Russia’s Supreme Court also ordered Friday the closing of the Russian NGO For Human Rights, which was run by the storied 78-year-old campaigner Lev Ponomarev. He says his organization will continue its work and he plans to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Kremlin officials say the organization, which received some foreign funding, violated laws restricting the work of “foreign agents.”

Another legal victory

As the preliminary hearing unfolded, attorneys for Serebrennikov and his fellow defendants scored another small legal win Friday when the judge, Olesya Mendeleeva, declined a request by prosecutors for a travel ban on all the defendants. When the charges were first laid out in 2017, Serebrennikov and his co-accused were placed under house arrest, but a court freed them on bail last April, allowing them to work and communicate freely as long as they remained in Moscow.

His freedom allowed him to personally receive last month the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French envoy, Sylvie Bermann, at the French Embassy in the Russian capital. She described Serebrennikov as “a key figure in Russian culture” and said his prominence went well beyond Russia’s borders.

On Friday, prosecutors said the film director could evade justice without some travel restrictions being imposed, but the defense stressed that would block Serebrennikov and the others — producer Yury Itin, former Culture Ministry employee Sofia Apfelbaum and theater director Aleksei Malobrodsky — from continuing with their work. The judge said prosecutors had offered no evidence that any of the accused posed flight risks.

Former head of Moscow’s Gogol Center theater, Alexei Malobrodsky and general director of Serebrennikov's "Seventh Studio"…
Former head of Moscow’s Gogol Center theater, Alexei Malobrodsky, and general director of Serebrennikov's "Seventh Studio" company, Yury Itin attend a court hearing in Moscow, May 21, 2018.

Case returned to prosecutors

Serebrennikov, artistic director of the Moscow Gogol Center Theater, and his co-defendants are accused of embezzling state funds allocated by the government for the development and popularization of modern art. Moscow’s Meshchansky District Court decided in mid-September to return the case to prosecutors more than two years after the defendants’ arrest because of inconsistencies in the charges.

Last month, the Moscow City Court overturned that ruling and ordered the Meshchansky court to retry the case. Some of Russia’s most famous actors and directors have rallied around the award-winning film and theater director, who faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty. Chulpan Khamatova, an actress known in the West for the 2003 movie Good Bye, Lenin!, has said, “A political motive for these charges is the only motive I can see.”

Serebrennikov moved to Moscow from his native Rostov-on-Don in 2012, having been invited to manage the Gogol Center in the city’s rundown Basmanny district. The avant-garde and controversial performances staged soon drew international attention. Serebrennikov’s own plays poked fun at Putin and mocked the ruling elite, even so Russia’s power brokers appeared able to accept the theatrical ridicule until around 2014. In the wake of the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, state funding for the center’s Platforma festival started to disappear.

Actress Irina Starshenbaum, centre, holds a sign with the name of the banned director, Kirill Serebrennikov, as she poses with…
FILE - Holding a sign with the name of the banned director, Kirill Serebrennikov, are president of the Cannes Film Festival Pierre Lescure, producer Ilya Stewart, actors Roman Bilyk, Irina Starshenbaum and Teo Yoo, festival director Thierry Fremaux, actor Charles-Evrard Tchekhoff and cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants at the premiere of the film 'Leto' at the 71st international film festival, Cannes, France, May 9, 2018.

Serebrennikov also became more outspoken in his criticism of Putin’s government, and he focused many of his complaints on the Russian Orthodox Church, criticizing it among other things for its opposition to the rights of the LGBT community.

In 2016, he directed a powerful movie, The Student, a critique of the church, which portrayed a teenager becoming a fanatical Orthodox Christian. Under house arrest, he still managed to complete a new film, Leto, and directed from afar operas performed in Zurich and Hamburg, overseeing rehearsals with directions sent on USB sticks.

In his first play after being released from house arrest, he had an actor speak the line, “Democracy is just a short break between one dictatorship and the other.” According to local media reports, one of Putin’s spiritual advisers, Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, complained to the Russian leader shortly before Serebrennikov’s arrest about The Student. The cleric has denied the reports.