Russian court sentences playwright and theatre director for ‘justifying terrorism’

Yevgenia Berkovich and Svetlana Petrichuk have been sentenced to six years in prison, the latest example of Russia’s relentless crackdown on opposition and freedom of speech.


A Moscow court sentenced a theater director and playwright to six years in prison on Monday on charges of “justifying terrorism” in a play about Russian women marrying members of the Islamic State in Syria.

Independent filmmaker Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petrichuk were sentenced to six years — one year less than the maximum possible sentence — for staging the play Finist the Brave Falcon. They had already been in prison for more than a year, awaiting trial.

In addition to the prison sentence, both women face a ban on “administering websites” for three years after their release.

According to Russian news website RBK, the prosecutor said the women professed “extremely aggressive Islamic ideologies” and had formed a “positive opinion” of the Islamic State.

Both Berkovich and Petrichuk have repeatedly denied the allegations made against them.

During one hearing, Berkovich told the court that she “staged the play to prevent terrorism,” and Petrichuk shared her opinion.

During a pretrial hearing, the women’s lawyers noted that the play was supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture and won two Golden Mask awards, Russia’s most prestigious theater prize. In 2019, the play was read to inmates at a women’s prison in Siberia, and the Russian penitentiary service praised it on its website, according to Petrichuk’s lawyer.

The arrest of the women in May last year sparked outrage in the Russian artistic community. An open letter of support for the director and playwright, initiated by an independent Newspaper Novaya Gazeta and claiming the play “carries an absolutely clear anti-terrorist message”, more than 16,000 people have signed it since their arrests.

Dozens of Russian actors, directors and journalists also signed statements calling on the court to release Berkovich and Petrichuk from custody until the investigation and trial are completed.

Referring to Berkovich’s poems criticizing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, wrote on X that the women were convicted “on completely absurd charges, in an unfair trial that is a clear retaliation against Berkovich for speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

After their initial detention, human rights group Amnesty International called for their immediate release, saying they were “targeted simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

Immediately after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin launched a sweeping crackdown on the opposition unseen since the Soviet era. This crackdown has particularly targeted those who oppose Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, with any criticism of the war effectively criminalized.

In addition to representatives of the political opposition and journalists, they also included members of the creative community. received draconian punishments for opposing – including poets, writers and artists.