Russian playwright and director on trial for 'justifying' terror deny guilt

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

A Russian playwright and theatre director accused of "justifying terrorism" told a Moscow court on Monday they were innocent, as authorities ramp up the censorship and suppression of dissenting artists.

The arrest of director Yevgeniya Berkovich and writer Svetlana Petriychuk in May last year sent shockwaves through Russia's artistic community, which has faced unprecedented pressure from the Kremlin since Russia sent troops to Ukraine.

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

Berkovich, 39, had also written poems criticising Russia's military offensive in Ukraine. Her supporters say they believe this may also be punishment for those works.

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

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.

After more than ten hours of proceedings and arguments by both the prosecution and defence, the rest of the hearing was postponed to 10 am (0700 GMT) Tuesday.

- 'Absurd' charges -

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, 44, said she had a younger sister and elderly parents that were 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. 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.

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.

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, competing for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, brandished a picture of the two women at the film festival on Monday.

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