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Russia’s security service has arrested an American reporter for The Wall Street Journal on espionage charges, the first time a US correspondent has been detained on spying accusations since the Cold War.

The newspaper denied the allegations and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the move “in the strongest possible terms”.

Evan Gershkovich was detained in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg while allegedly trying to obtain classified information, the Federal Security Service, known by the acronym FSB, said Thursday.

Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich has been arrested in Russia on suspicion of espionage. (AFP/Getty Images) (AFP/Getty Images)

The service, which is the top domestic security agency and main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, alleged that Gershkovich “was acting on the US orders to collect information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex that constitutes a state secret”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday: “It is not about a suspicion, is it about the fact that he was caught red-handed”.

“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” the newspaper said.

“We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”

In a tweet and a statement, Blinken said the US government was “deeply concerned” over the detention.

Blinken said the US was in contact with The Wall Street Journal and was seeking consular access to the journalist.

“In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices,” he said.

“The Department of State’s highest priority is the safety and security of US citizens abroad.”

The arrest comes at a moment of bitter tensions between the West and Moscow over its war in Ukraine and as the Kremlin intensifies a crackdown on opposition activists, independent journalists and civil society groups. The sweeping campaign of repression is unprecedented since the Soviet era.

Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since September 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for US News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB. Daniloff was released without charge 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission who was arrested by the FBI, also on spying charges.

Daniil Berman, the lawyer of arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, speaks to journalists near the Lefortovsky court, in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

At a hearing on Thursday, a Moscow court quickly ruled to keep Gershkovich behind bars pending the investigation, according to the official Telegram channel of the capital’s courts.

While previous American detainees have been freed in prisoner swaps, a top Russian official said it was way too early to talk about any such deal.

There was no immediate public comment from Washington, although a US official indicated the U.S. government was aware of the situation and awaiting more information from Russia.

Gershkovich, who covers Russia, Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations as a correspondent in The Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau, could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage. Prominent lawyers noted that past investigations into espionage cases in the past took a year to 18 months during which time he may be held with little contact with the outside world.

The FSB noted that Gershkovich had accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist, but ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Gershkovich was using his journalistic credentials as a cover for “activities that have nothing to do with journalism”.

Reporter for the Wall Street Journal Evan Gershkovich, centre, is escorted by officers from the Lefortovsky court to a vehicle, in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko) (AP)

Gershkovich speaks fluent Russian and had previously worked for the French agency Agence France-Presse and The New York Times. His last report from Moscow, published earlier this week, focused on the Russian economy’s slowdown amid Western sanctions imposed when Russian troops invaded Ukraine last year.

Ivan Pavlov, a prominent Russian defence attorney who has worked on many espionage and treason cases, said Gershkovich is the first criminal case on espionage charges against a foreign journalist in post-Soviet Russia.

“That unwritten rule not to touch accredited foreign journalists, has stopped working,” said Pavlov, a member of the First Department legal aid group.

Pavlov said the case against Gershkovich was built in order for Russia to have “trump cards” for a future prisoner exchange and will likely be resolved “not by the means of the law, but by political, diplomatic means”.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov ruled out any quick swap.

“I wouldn’t even consider this issue now because people who were previously swapped had already served their sentences,” Ryabkov said, according to Russian news agencies.

Another American, Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government have said are baseless.

Jeanne Cavelier, of press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, said Gershkovich’s arrest “looks like a retaliation measure of Russia against the United States”.

“We are very alarmed because it is probably a way to intimidate all Western journalists that are trying to investigate aspects of the war on the ground in Russia,” said Cavelier, head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at the Paris-based group.

“The Western powers should immediately ask for clarifications on the charges, because as far as we know he was just doing his job as a journalist.”

Russian journalist Dmitry Kolezev said on the messaging app Telegram that he spoke to Gershkovich before his trip to Yekaterinburg.

“He was preparing for the usual, albeit rather dangerous in current conditions, journalist work,” Kolezev wrote.

He said Gershkovich asked him for the contacts of local journalists and officials in the area as he prepared to arrange interviews.

Another prominent lawyer with the First Department group, Yevgeny Smirnov, said that those arrested on espionage and treason charges are usually held at the FSB’s Lefortovo prison in Moscow, known for its stringent conditions. It was Moscow’s Lefortovo District Court that ruled behind closed doors to keep Gershkovich in custody.

Smirnov said espionage suspects are usually held in a total isolation, without phone calls, visitors or even access to newspapers. At most, they can receive letters, often delayed by weeks. Smirnov called these conditions “tools of suppression”.

Smirnov and Pavlov both said that the investigation could last for 12 to 18 months, and the trial would be held behind closed doors.

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According to Pavlov, there have been no acquittals in treason and espionage cases in Russia since 1999.

Most recently, Smirnov and Pavlov defended Ivan Safronov, a former Russian journalist turned an official with the federal space corporation Roscosmos who was convicted of treason.

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