Controversial ‘theater case’ moved into closed court hearings

The Bell

A Moscow military court has ordered a highly controversial court case in which a playwright and director are accused of justifying terrorism to proceed behind closed doors, shutting off public scrutiny. The move came a month into the trial and after prosecution witnesses had finished testifying.

  • Director Evgenia Berkovich and writer Svetlana Petriychuk, who have been detained for almost a year, are facing lengthy jail sentences over charges of justifying terrorism. The case against them is based on their award-winning play, “Finist, the Brave Falcon,” which tells the stories of women who traveled from Russia to Syria to marry Islamic State fighters. The production was based on real events and won several prizes at Russia’s top theater festival, the Golden Masks, which is supported by the Culture Ministry. Because the charges are related to terrorism, the case is held before a military court. 
  • An FSB examination of the play concluded that Berkovich and Petriychuk deliberately created a “romantic view of a terrorist” to make him “interesting and attractive to women and girls.” Prosecutors also alleged the play discriminated against Russian men through its depiction of Sharia marriage. Berkovich and Petriychuk argue that far from justifying terrorism or Islamism, the play serves as a cautionary tale to young women not to be swept up by IS propaganda or travel to marry into its ranks.
  • The defense was outraged by the prosecution’s case, and independent experts have likened their fundamental argument as akin to arguing that Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment “advocates the murder of old women.”
  • The judge ordered the trial to be closed to the public due to “threats to one of the participants of the process”. The court did not specify who had allegedly been threatened. Since the prosecution has already presented its evidence, only the submissions of defense witnesses will be heard behind closed doors — a fact the defense said shows it was obvious the court is trying to limit public scrutiny and coverage of its arguments against the prosecution.
  • A few days before the trial was closed, the court heard from an anonymous witness who had secretly filmed the show and handed the recording to the police. He acted on the advice of a Muslim friend from the North Caucasus and was motivated by a sense of “civil responsibility.” The witness, who spoke under the pseudonym Nikita, said that he saw “all kinds of justification for ISIS terrorists” in the play. “My conscience was tormented by the thought that there was such a play that advertised the values of radical Islam, that claimed that Russia was bad, our men are bad and over there they are all good,” he said in court.

Why the world should care

Ordering a high-profile trial behind closed doors means, at the very least, that the defense cannot present its argument in public. Only the prosecution, which is relying on an obviously biased analysis and an anonymous denunciation, will be in the public domain. Even had the hearings proceeded openly, it is unlikely it would have made a difference. Russian courts, especially recently, almost never acquit in cases connected with terrorism or extremism.


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