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Russia jails director, playwright for 'justifying' terrorism

July 8, 2024

A Russian court has convicted Zhenya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk, and sentenced them to six years each in prison. They're accused of "justifying" IS terrorism in Syria. Critics called the charges absurd.

Theater director Zhenya Berkovich, left, and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk are seen in a glass cage prior to a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Monday, May 20, 2024. They are leaning in close to each other, apparently to speak in each other's ear.
Director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk were accused of 'justifying' IS terrorism in a play about a Russian woman facing prosecution after being recruited online to marry radical Islamists in SyriaImage: Dmitry Serebryakov/AP Photo/picture alliance

A Moscow court on Monday convicted independent theater director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk for "justifying" terrorism in the "Finist, the Brave Falcon" play they collaborated on, which was written around five years ago and staged in 2020. 

Berkovich and Petriychuk were sentenced to six years each in prison on the charges. 

"Justifying" or otherwise defending "terrorism" is a criminal offense in Russia, punishable by up to seven years in prison. 

The two women have already spent around a year in pre-trial detention, following their arrest last May that triggered outrage in literary and opposition circles

Theater director Zhenya Berkovich, left, and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk sit in a glass cage in a courtroom prior to a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023.
Berkovich made the heart-shaped hand signal commonly used by opposition groups in Russia from behind the security glass during the hearings prior to Monday's verdictImage: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/picture alliance

What was the case about? 

Russian authorities claimed that the play supported "Islamic State" or IS terrorism in Syria

The play, which is named after a famous Russian folk tale, tells the story of a Russian woman who is tempted into becoming an "IS bride" online, goes to Syria, and then returns to Russia to face prosecution. 

The play is based on material from real criminal cases against women from Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, who decided to leave for Syria and marry members of militant groups, including transcripts of interrogations and sentences.

It was written around the time of Russia's military intervention in Syria's long-running civil war in support of President Bashar Assad. 

Both defendants repeatedly rejected the accusations. In one hearing, Berkovich told the court that she staged the play in the hope of preventing terrorism, and Petriychuk said she wrote it in the hope of preventing events like those depicted in the work of fiction. 

Since the pair's arrest, more than 16,000 people have signed an open letter, started by independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, arguing that the play "carries an absolutely clear anti-terrorist sentiment." 

Berkovich's lawyer also noted in court that the play had won two prestigious national theater awards and had been supported by the Russian Culture Ministry. Petriychuk's lawyer said it was read to inmates in a Siberian jail in 2019 and Russia's state penitentiary service praised the work at the time. 

Theater director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk are seen during a court hearing in Moscow
The women's defense lawyers argue that Russia's government should have been well aware of the play's contents years ago, when they seemed to approve of itImage: Dmitry Serebryakov/AP Photo/picture alliance

Berkovich also briefly detained over Ukraine protest

Russia has cracked down extensively on domestic dissent, particularly since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine

On the day of the invasion, Berkovich participated in a public protest and was arrested and detained for 11 days before being released. 

She also wrote a pair of critical poems about the war in Ukraine — one in which a World War II veteran grandfather asks his grandson not to carry his portrait in a military parade, and a second about the Mariupol theater airstrike. 

A string of more critical actors, directors and musicians have been fired from state-run theaters, and some labeled as "foreign agents" since the invasion of Ukraine. 

Many fled the country, but Berkovich, who is raising two adopted daughters, refused to leave and continued to work with her independent Moscow theater production.

The charges followed in May 2023, more than four years after Russian authorities' first chance to read the work.

The pair were added to a Russian government agency's list of terrorists and extremists in April this year, around a month before their trial opened on May 20.

Russia: Blacklists for artists

msh/wd (AFP, AP)