Home » Russian court jails playwright and theatre director for ‘justifying terrorism’

Russian court jails playwright and theatre director for ‘justifying terrorism’

by Marko Florentino
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Yevgenia Berkovich and Svetlana Petrichuk were handed prison sentences of six years each, the latest development in an unrelenting crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression in Russia.


A Moscow court sentenced a theatre director and playwright to six years in prison on Monday, on charges of “justifying terrorism” in a play about Russian women marrying members of the Islamic State group in Syria.

Independent director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petrichuk were each sentenced to six years – one year less than the maximum possible sentence – for the production of their play Finist the Brave Falcon. They had already been in prison for over a year awaiting trial.

In addition to being jailed, both women will be banned from “administering websites” for three years after their release.

According to Russian news outlet RBK, the prosecutor claimed the women had  “extremely aggressive Islamic ideologies” and formed a “positive opinion” of Islamic State.

Berkovich and Petrichuk have both repeatedly rejected the accusations against them.

In one hearing, Berkovich told the court that she “staged the play to prevent terrorism,” with Petrichuk echoing her sentiment.

At pre-trial court hearings, the women’s lawyers noted that the play was supported by the Russian Culture Ministry and had won two Golden Mask awards – Russia’s most prestigious theatre award. In 2019, it was read to inmates of a women’s prison in Siberia, with Russia’s state penitentiary service praising the play on its website, according to Petrichuk’s lawyer.

The women’s arrest in May last year elicited outrage in Russia’s artistic community. An open letter in support of the director and playwright, started by the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper and claiming that the play “carries an absolutely clear anti-terrorist sentiment,” has been signed by more than 16,000 people since their arrest.

Dozens of Russian actors, directors and journalists also signed affidavits urging the court to release Berkovich and Petrichuk from custody pending investigation and trial.

In reference to poems written by Berkovich criticising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, wrote on X that the women were sentenced “on utterly absurd charges, in an unfair trial that is blatant retaliation against Berkovich for speaking out against Russia’s war on Ukraine”.

After their initial detention, human rights group Amnesty International called for the pair’s immediate release, saying they were “being targeted simply for exercising the right to freedom of expression”.

Immediately after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent not seen since the Soviet era. This crackdown has particularly targeted those opposing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, with any criticism of the war effectively criminalised.

As well as political opposition figures and journalists, members of the creative community have received draconian punishments for dissent – including poets, writers and artists.

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