Russia tries playwright and director on terror charges

Russia accuses theatre director Yevgeniya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk of 'justifying terrorism' in an award-winning play (Alexander NEMENOV)
Russia accuses theatre director Yevgeniya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk of 'justifying terrorism' in an award-winning play (Alexander NEMENOV)

A playwright and a theatre director went on trial in Moscow on Monday accused of justifying terrorism in an award-winning play in a case that points to the dwindling artistic freedom in Russia.

The arrest of director Yevgeniya Berkovich and writer Svetlana Petriychuk in May last year shook Russia's artistic community, already under pressure from the Kremlin since it launched hostilities in Ukraine in 2022.

The women have been accused of justifying terrorism in their 2021 play about Russian women lured to marry Islamic State militants in Syria and tried for terrorism on their return to Russia. It was awarded two prestigious Golden Mask awards.

Berkovich, 39, has also written poems criticising the Russian military offensive in Ukraine. Her supporters have said they believe she may be being punished for the verses.

AFP journalists at a military court in Moscow said the women were smiling as they were led in. The pair laughed as the prosecutor accused them of harbouring "extreme forms of Islam".

"I staged the play to prevent terrorism," Berkovich said, denying the charges.

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

Petriychuk said she has a younger sister and elderly parents that are dependent on her.

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

The play, "Finist The Brave Falcon", was performed in a documentary style, telling the story of Russian women groomed online to join Islamic State.

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

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.

bur/tw