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Russian court jails theatre figures over IS wives play

10-07-2024

MOSCOW: A Russian playwright and a theatre director have been found guilty of “justifying terrorism” by a military court in Moscow.

Director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petrichuk were sentenced to six years each for the production of their play The Brave Falcon Finist.

Loosely based on true events, the play tells the story of Russian women who travelled to Syria during the country’s civil war to marry members of the Islamic State group.

The two women’s defence lawyer vowed to appeal against the verdict.

Held partly behind closed doors, the trial heightened alarm about freedom of expression in Russia among members of the country’s artistic community.

In addition to being jailed, both women will be banned from “administering websites” for three years after their release.

In custody since May 2023, they will now be sent to a penal colony to serve their sentences, according to Russian news agency RBC.

The prosecution said the women had formed a positive opinion of IS and prosecutor Yekaterina Denisova argued the play contained “signs of justification of terrorism”, according to RBC.

At the beginning of the trial in late May, Berkovich, 39, and Petrichuk, 44, said they had staged the play because they opposed terrorism.

Berkovich said the performance had been put on to “prevent terrorism”, adding she had “nothing but condemnation and disgust” for terrorists.

“I have absolutely no idea what this selection of words has to do with me… I have never shared any forms of Islam, radical or otherwise,” RBC quoted Berkovich as saying.

Both she and Petriychuk maintained their innocence throughout the trial.

Speaking after the women had been sentenced, defence lawyer Ksenia Karpinskaya described the hearing as “absolutely illegal” and “unfair” and pledged to appeal against it though there was “little hope”.

“I want you to know that these girls are absolutely innocent,” the lawyer added.

Supporters of Berkovich have suggested her prosecution was linked to a series of poems she wrote criticizing Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine.

Russia’s artistic community has come under increasing pressure from the Kremlin since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Several high-profile Russian artists, writers and journalists have come out in support of the women, including newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov and actress Yulia Peresild.

The play, which remiered in 2020, won two Golden Mask Theatre Awards for best playwright and best costumes.

In recent months, Russia has been subjected to deadly attacks by Islamist militants in both Moscow and Dagestan. The Kremlin has made unsubstantiated suggestions that Ukraine was involved in both incidents.

Attacks on police posts, churches and a synagogue in Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Dagestan have left 20 people dead, most of them police officers. Five gunmen were also killed.

At least 46 people were taken to hospital with injuries after the Sunday evening attack.

Three days of mourning have been declared in Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim republic in southern Russia which neighbors Chechnya.

The apparently coordinated attacks targeted the cities of Derbent and Makhachkala on the Orthodox festival of Pentecost, with an Orthodox priest among those killed. (Int’l Monitoring Desk)

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