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Russian playwright and director given six years in jail for ‘justifying terrorism’

A Russian military court has sentenced a playwright and a theatre director to six years in prison on charges of “justifying terrorism” in a play about women marrying jihadists in Syria.

The judge sentenced director Yevgeniya Berkovich and writer Svetlana Petriychuk after moving their trial behind closed doors.

The women’s arrest in May last year sent shock waves through Russia’s artistic community, which has faced unprecedented pressure from the Kremlin since Russia sent troops to Ukraine.

The length of the sentence announced by the judge on Monday was the same as requested by prosecutors last week and one year less than the maximum possible.

Berkovich, 39, has written poems criticising Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine and her supporters said they believed the court case could be linked to this.

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”.

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.

The two women were brought in for the sentencing wearing handcuffs and sat in a glass-walled dock in a courtroom heavily guarded by police with masked faces, AFP journalists saw.

Berkovich, wearing a white shirt, tried to smile and show a victory sign to supporters, while Petriychuk, 44, in a blue dress, looked tense.

Defence lawyer Ksenia Karpinskaya said after the sentence that “today was an absolutely illegal, unfair hearing” and that the women were “absolutely innocent”, to applause from those present.

“Of course we will appeal against this decision,” Karpinskaya said, condemning the “cruel sentence”.

“Today at the court hearing, Svetlana said that she … will never plead guilty for something she did not do. Yevgeniya said the same,” the lawyer said.

When the judge read out the women’s sentence, Berkovich’s husband, Nikolai Matveyev, who works for an independent theatre company, burst into tears.

Prosecutors charged the pair over their 2021 play Finist The Brave Falcon, about Russian women who were lured to marry Islamic State group militants in Syria and imprisoned upon returning to Russia. It was awarded two prestigious Golden Mask theatre awards.

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.

“I staged the play to prevent terrorism,” Berkovich said during the trial, denying the charges.

Among those who came to the court on Monday to support the women was Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel prize-winning newspaper editor, who had called for their charges to be dropped.

The women and their defence lawyers gave their final arguments in court on Monday during a closed hearing.

The judge ruled last month that the trial would continue behind closed doors after the prosecution said witnesses were being threatened on social media.

Media and supporters were only allowed to attend the sentencing.


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