Russia indicts two playwrights for 'justifying terrorism' in play

Six-year prison sentence against directors Svetlana Petriychuk and Evgenia Berkovich, who is Jewish, shocks the country with some claiming other anti-Putin motives stand behind ruling 

A Russian military court sentenced a playwright and a theater director to six years in prison for "justifying terrorism" after they staged a play centered around women marrying Islamic State jihadists in Syria. This is the most prominent trial against Russian cultural figures due to the content of their works since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and is seen as a challenge to freedom of expression in the country.
The trial of playwright Svetlana Petriychuk, 44, and director Evgenia (Zhenya) Berkovich, 39, was held behind closed doors. Their arrest in May 2023 shocked the Russian art world and the heavy six-year prison sentence imposed on them Monday after the trial sent ripples throughout the country.
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רוסיה משפט במאית ז'ניה ברקוביץ' מימין ו מחזאית סבטלנה פטריצ'וק
רוסיה משפט במאית ז'ניה ברקוביץ' מימין ו מחזאית סבטלנה פטריצ'וק
Svetlana Petriychuk and Evgenia Berkovich in court
(Photo: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Berkovich, 39, who is Jewish, is known for writing songs critical of Russia's attack on Ukraine, and shortly after the war began she participated in a protest against it, and was arrested and jailed for 11 days. Her supporters believe that her conviction and sentence were actually because of her songs and part in the protest, rather than the play staged at the theater. The couple’s lawyers also stressed that the play received support from the Russian Culture Ministry.
Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch Rachel Denber wrote on her X platform account that the sentence was based on "utterly absurd" charges and within an unfair trial conducted as retaliation for Berkovich daring to speak out against Russia's actions in Ukraine.
The two women were brought to their hearing handcuffed and placed in a glass cage in the courtroom, where masked police officers were present. Berkovich, wearing a white shirt, tried to smile and signaled victory to her supporters, while Petriychuk, looked tense.
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נשיא רוסיה ולדימיר פוטין מדבר עם התקשורת הזרה סנט פטרסבורג
נשיא רוסיה ולדימיר פוטין מדבר עם התקשורת הזרה סנט פטרסבורג
Russian Preisident Vladimir Putin
(Photo: Vladimir ASTAPKOVICH / POOL / AFP)
Defense lawyer Ksenia Karpinskaya said the hearing was illegal and unfair and that the two women were innocent, promising to appeal the verdict which she called a "cruel sentence." She added Petriychuk and Berkovich said during their trial they would never admit to something they didn’t do.
The indictment against Petriychuk and Berkovich was filed for a play they staged in 2021, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which focused on the stories of Russian women lured into marrying Islamic State terrorists in Syria and sent to prison upon their return to Russia.
The play won two prestigious theater awards. During her trial, Berkovich declared that she staged the play specifically to prevent terrorism.
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