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Two Russian women convicted of ‘justifying terrorism’

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A Russian military court on Monday found a playwright and a theater director guilty of “defending terrorism” and sentenced them each to six years in prison, in what critics said was the latest chilling example of a crackdown on free speech since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Playwright Svetlana Petriychuk, 44, and director Yevgenia Berkovich, 39, both well-known figures in the Russian theater world, have been detained since May 2023. In addition to a six-year prison sentence (which is exactly the term requested by prosecutors), the two women are also banned from “managing the website” for three years after their release.

Performance Ms. Petrichuk wrote the script, Ms. Berkovich wrote the screenplay“Brave Falcon Finister” is adapted from the classic fairy tale of the same name. The show interweaves the stories of women who were lured online by men to join the Islamic State. The show is loosely based on the true story of thousands of women recruited by Islamic State terrorists across Russia and the former Soviet Union. The show’s protagonist returns to Russia feeling betrayed and let down by the men she lured to Russia, while she herself is jailed for being a terrorist.

Prosecutor Ekaterina Denisova insisted that Ms Petrichuk held “a very aggressive Islamic ideology” and a “positive view” of ISIS, while Ms Berkovic held “ideological beliefs related to the justification and propaganda of terrorism,” according to Russian media RBK.

Both women and their lawyers have maintained their innocence and repeatedly insisted during the trial that the play had a clear anti-terrorism message.

“I have absolutely no idea what these words have to do with me,” Ms. Berkovich said as she pleaded not guilty. “I have never practiced any form of Islam: radical or otherwise. I respect Islam and have nothing but condemnation and disgust for terrorists.”

In Russia, where more than 99% of criminal trials end in conviction, the verdict seemed a foregone conclusion. The judge sided with prosecutors and the witnesses they called. One witness, an expert from the Federal Security Service (the KGB’s modern successor), argued that because the show was based on a fairy tale, and fairy tales have happy endings, it “romanticized the image of terrorism.”

The play premiered in 2020 and went on to win two Golden Mask awards, Russia’s highest theatre honour and one backed by official bodies including the Moscow mayor’s office and the country’s culture ministry.

Immediately after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, law enforcement agencies launched a massive crackdown that effectively criminalized anti-war sentiment.

The criminal case against Ms. Petrichuk and Ms. Berkovich began a few months ago after a pro-Kremlin actor posted on the social network VK.com expressing disgust at a play directed by an anti-war liberal in his city of Nizhny Novgorod following Ukraine’s attack on a Crimean bridge earlier this month. He called the show “an undisguised expression of sympathy for Ukraine and hatred for the current government.”

The show there was canceled, and the man, Vladimir Kapko, ended up becoming one of the prosecution’s key witnesses.

The criminal case was condemned by many prominent Russian intellectuals and actors, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry A. Muratov and Kirill Serebrennikov, a director under Ms. Berkovic’s tutelage.The women have also received support from Amnesty International, which said they were “targeted simply for exercising their right to free expression,” and from Human Rights Watch and other rights groups.

The trial at the Western District Military Court No. 2 was closed to the public after prosecutors’ witnesses finished testifying, but dozens of people gathered in front of the court on Monday night to show support for the women, and some were allowed inside to hear the verdict.

Supporters of the two women believe this is the first time a work of art has been effectively tried in post-Soviet Russia. More than 16,000 people have signed a petition letter, This is a campaign launched by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta after Petrichuk and Berkovic were detained last year.

“We are against persecuting people on trumped-up charges. We are against the domination of art by ideology. We are against the destruction of theatre and culture. We are against singling out and arresting those theatre people who decide to stay in their homeland,” the letter reads.

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