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Russia announced on Wednesday that 31-year-old American journalist Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), was arrested in Ekaterinburg and charged with espionage.
The WSJ “vehemently” denied the allegations and demanded the “immediate release” of Gershkovich.
Russia’s FSB security service, successor to the notorious KGB, said it obtained authorization to arrest Gershkovich after a closed-door meeting of the Lefortovo district court in Moscow. Gershkovich’s lawyer was not allowed to attend this meeting, and journalists were barred from the entire floor of the courthouse where it took place. Russian state media claimed these precautions were necessary because a bomb threat was called into the building.
The FSB charged Gershkovich with “collecting information about one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex, which constitutes a state secret.” He allegedly conducted this vaguely described espionage at the behest of the U.S. government.
“It is not about a suspicion, it is about the fact that he was caught red-handed,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted on Wednesday.
Gershkovich has been reporting on the attitude of the Russian public toward the invasion of Ukraine from the Ural Mountains city of Ekaterinburg for several weeks. He was said to be working on a story about the infamous Wagner Group mercenary organization at the time of his arrest.
Before his assignment in Ekaterinburg, Gershkovich lived in Moscow for six years. He worked for the Moscow Times and Agence France-Presse (AFP) before joining the WSJ in 2022. Prior to moving to Moscow, he worked as a news assistant for the New York Times.
Gershkovich was duly accredited as a journalist by the Russian Foreign Ministry, but Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed on Wednesday he abused his credentials for “activities that have nothing to do with journalism.”
According to Russian media, the reporter was taken into custody by FSB agents in Ekaterinburg and transported to Moscow, where he pleaded not guilty to the charges. He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Experts on the Russian “legal system” said he could spend a year or more in prison, largely incommunicado, before the investigation is completed. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov ruled out any possibility of freeing Gershkovich with a quick prisoner swap.
Gershkovich is the first American journalist to be detained in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but far from the first high-profile foreigner to be taken hostage by the regime of leader Vladimir Putin since he invaded Ukraine.
Some observers believe Gershkovich was kidnapped to give Russia more leverage in negotiations for the release of two alleged Russian spies arrested in Slovenia in December. Others viewed his arrest as part of Putin’s escalating crackdown on journalism and political dissent as the war in Ukraine grinds on or as an act of revenge against the U.S. for sanctions. Many wondered if Putin sensed weakness he could exploit after securing the release of legendary arms kingpin Viktor Bout for U.S. women’s basketball player Brittney Griner in an absurdly lopsided December prisoner swap.
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Jeanne Cavelier of Reporters Without Borders said on Thursday:
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. 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.
“That unwritten rule not to touch accredited foreign journalists has stopped working,” Russian defense attorney Ivan Pavlov warned.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it was “deeply concerned” by the arrest of Gershkovich, which was “the latest in a long line of attempts by Russia to use national security laws to silence reporting.”
The National Press Club said in a statement on the case:
Evan Gershkovich is a journalist. He should be released immediately and unharmed and allowed to return to his important work. Evan has a significant and distinguished career working for the New York Times and AFP prior to the Wall Street Journal. We consider this an unjust detention and call on the State Department to designate his detention in that manner at once.
Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center senior fellow Tatiana Stanovaya told the New York Times (NYT) on Thursday that Moscow probably took Gershkovich as a “negotiating chip” and a provocation, hoping to “attract a lot of attention politically in the United States so that the authorities will have to react.”
The Biden administration had not responded to the arrest of Gerhskovich as of Thursday morning.
“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich. We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the WSJ said on Thursday.
Gershkovich’s editors said they lost contact with him on Wednesday afternoon while he was working in Ekaterinburg. The first solid clue to his situation was a photo posted to the messaging site Telegram that showed an unidentified man being dragged out of a restaurant in the city and loaded into a van. FSB officials in Ekaterinburg initially denied any knowledge of Gershkovich’s arrest.