Russian court hands six-year prison sentences to playwright and theater director

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Svetlana Petriychuk and Evgenia Berkovich were convicted of “justifying terrorism” in the play about jihadists’ brides

A Russian military court has found a playwright and a theater director guilty of working on a critically acclaimed play that “justified terrorism,” sentencing the both women to six years in prison on Monday. The defense team of Svetlana Petriychuk and Evgenia Berkovich promised to appeal the verdict, which was announced after a closed hearing.

In 2020, Petriychuk published the play ‘Finist, the Brave Falcon’, which tells the stories of fictional Russian women who stand trial for deciding to travel to Syria in order to marry members of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). The play is loosely based on real interrogation transcripts and court cases involving women with ties to Islamists. Berkovich directed the performance based on Petriychuk’s script.

The play premiered in late 2020 and received good reviews, earning two Golden Mask awards – Russia’s main theater accolades – and an award from Russia’s Theater Critics Association. Petriychuk received a Golden Mask as the best playwright of 2022 for her work on ‘Finist’.

The two women were unexpectedly arrested in May 2023 and charged under Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code, which bans “public calls to terrorist activities, public justification of terrorism and propaganda of terrorism.”

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The prosecution argued that the play reflects Petriychuk’s sympathy for “extremely aggressive ideologies of Islam” and contains “elements of the justification of terrorism,” according to Forbes. The prosecutors insisted that Berkovich directed the play with an intent to make “public statements about the recognition of the ideology of terrorism as a correct one.” 

Berkovich and Petriychuk denied justifying terrorism and argued that the play was intended as a cautionary tale about women who fall victim to radicalization. “I did nothing wrong. I directed this performance with the goal of preventing terrorism. I feel nothing except condemnation and disgust towards terrorists,” Berkovich told the court in May.

Journalist and former presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak blasted the “horrible” verdict. “Handing down a prison sentence… to people whose play exposes terrorism as opposed to justifying it an embarrassment to our justice system,” she wrote on Telegram.

Journalist Eva Merkachyova, who sits on the Presidential Human Rights Council, criticized the verdict as “overly harsh.” Speaking to the Gazeta.Ru news website, she said that Berkovich and Petriychuk had no prior criminal record and “only worked in the field of arts and were not involved in anything that would have had even a shade of criminality.” 

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