MOSCOW -- Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov is on trial in Moscow, facing up to 10 years in prison if convicted on an embezzlement charge he has called unfounded and "absurd."
After a two-week delay, the trial of Serebrennikov and three co-defendants in the so-called Seventh Studio case began at the Meshchansky district court on November 7.
"I am not guilty," Serebrennikov told the court.
"I have never stolen anything from anyone, have not embezzled, and never formed any...group except a theatrical one," he said, responding to the charge that he created a "criminal group."
Serebrennikov's arrest sent a chill through Russia's creative community, caused outrage in the West, and prompted accusations that the authorities were targeting cultural figures who are at odds with President Vladimir Putin's government.
Initially treated as a witness in an investigation targeting the Gogol Center theater, Serebrennikov was arrested in August 2017 and charged with organizing the embezzlement of 68 million rubles ($1 million) in state funds granted to Seventh Studio, a nonprofit organization he established, from 2011 to 2014.
The 49-year-old has been under house arrest since then, and in a show of defiance is now directing a Mozart opera production in Zurich, Switzerland, while confined to his Moscow home. The amount he and his co-defendants are accused of stealing from the state was increased to 133 million rubles ($2 million) in January 2018.
Reading out the charges, state prosecutor Oleg Lavrov said Serebrennikov and his three co-defendants "created a...criminal group with a clear distribution of roles" and "stole 133,237,000 rubles" in what he called "financial fraud of extremely significant proportions."
All four defendants -- Serebrennikov, producers Yury Itin and Aleksei Malobrodsky and former Culture Ministry employee Sofia Apfelbaum, have said they are innocent.
"The charges are not only absurd but actually unclear," Serebrennikov told the court. "You can understand the words but you can't understand the meaning."
Wearing thick-rimmed glasses and his trademark dark skullcap, Serebrennikov argued that he "stood aside from financial operations" at Seventh Studio, saying: "I do not understand them and they are outside of my competence."
A fifth person charged in the case, accountant Nina Maslyayeva, has pleaded guilty and has provided testimony used by prosecutors as evidence against the defendants. She is to be tried separately.
Supporters of Serebrennikov have called the case part of a politically motivated crackdown on the arts community ahead of the March 2018 election in which Putin, a longtime Soviet KGB officer who has been president or prime minister since 1999, won a fourth Kremlin term.
Serebrennikov in the past took part in antigovernment protests and voiced concern about the increasing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose ties with the state have gotten tighter under Putin.
The director was unable to attend the Cannes Film Festival premiere of his much-praised film Leto (Summer) in May 2018.
At an October 17 hearing, the judge in the case, Yelena Akkuratova, granted a prosecution request to extend house arrest for Serebrennikov, Itin, and Apfelbaum until April 3.
Malobrodsky was jailed until May 2018, when he was released for health reasons, but is barred from leaving Moscow.