Russian playwright and director go on trial over ‘justifying terrorism’

Director Yevgeniya Berkovich and writer Svetlana Petriychuk were arrested over their play entitled Finist, the Brave Falcon.

Russian theatre director Yevgeniya Berkovich (left) and fellow playwright Svetlana Petriychuk, detained on charges of justification of 'terrorism' over their award-winning play about Russian Islamic State brides, appear in court in Moscow [Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

A Russian playwright and theatre director accused of “justifying terrorism” have told a Moscow court that they are innocent on the first day of their trial over the staging of an award-winning play.

The arrest of director Yevgeniya Berkovich and writer Svetlana Petriychuk in May last year sent shock waves through Russia’s artistic community, which has faced increasing pressure from the Kremlin since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Prosecutors have charged the pair over their play Finist, the Brave Falcon, about Russian women who were lured to marry Islamic State militants in Syria and imprisoned upon returning to Russia. It has been awarded two prestigious Golden Mask awards.

Berkovich, 39, has also written poems criticising Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine.

They face up to seven years in prison if found guilty.

The two women told a Moscow military court they had set out to advocate against “terrorism”, not to support it, according to a transcript of the hearing published by independent outlet Mediazona, which reports on Russian trials.

“I staged the performance to prevent terrorism,” Berkovich, 39, told the court, Mediazona reported. Towards terrorists, she said, “I have nothing but condemnation and disgust.”

Petriychuk, 44, echoed Berkovich and denied any guilt.

Berkovich has repeatedly asked the court to move her to house arrest to provide care for her adopted teenage daughters who have disabilities.

Berkovich’s mother, activist Yelena Efros, told AFP that the charges against her daughter were “absurd”.

“I am sure they will say whatever is necessary to prove the absurdity of this accusation,” she said.

Petriychuk said she had a younger sister and elderly parents who were dependent on her.

“There is no justification of terrorism in the play,” she said, also denying she was guilty.

The Kremlin has brought artistic institutions under tighter control since launching its Ukraine offensive in 2022. Many of Russia’s prominent artistic figures have left the country.

The Kremlin does not comment on individual cases and says Russia is engaged in an existential struggle with the West and needs to robustly uphold its laws and defend itself.

More than 16,000 people have signed an online petition, launched by Nobel Prize-winning newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov, calling for the charges against the women to be dropped.

“We oppose the fact that directors, playwrights and any artist is arrested over their work in the 21st century,” the petition read.

“Go after killers, not poets,” the statement added.

Human rights group Amnesty International said the pair were “being targeted simply for exercising the right to freedom of expression” and called for their immediate release.

Meanwhile, at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday, Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov defended the artists.

“They did absolutely nothing wrong, they just put on a show and they have already been in prison for a year,” Serebrennikov told reporters.

Source: News Agencies