Russia arrests US reporter on spy charges, White House says allegations 'ridiculous'

March 31, 2023 10:33 am

[Source: Reuters]

Russia charged an American correspondent for the Wall Street Journal with spying.

This is a case certain to worsen Moscow’s diplomatic feud with Washington over the war in Ukraine and likely to further isolate Russia.

The newspaper denied the allegations and demanded the immediate release of “trusted and dedicated reporter” Evan Gershkovich. The White House said the State Department was in direct contact with the Russian government over his detention and urged U.S. citizens living or travelling in Russia to depart immediately.

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“These espionage charges are ridiculous. The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a news briefing.

Gershkovich, a 31-year-old who has worked in Russia as a journalist for six years, is the highest-profile American arrested there since basketball star Brittney Griner, who was freed in December after 10 months in jail on drugs charges.

The FSB said it arrested Gershkovich in the Urals industrial city of Yekaterinburg, “suspected of spying in the interests of the American government” by collecting information on “one of the enterprises of Russia’s military-industrial complex”, which it did not identify.

He was brought to Moscow, where a court at a closed hearing ordered him held in pre-trial detention until May 29.

Gershkovich, who has been working for the Journal for just over a year, told the court he was not guilty. His employer said the case against him, believed to be the first criminal case for espionage against a foreign journalist in post-Soviet Russia, was based on a false allegation.

Espionage under Russian law can be punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia would grant the U.S. consular access to Gershkovich, adding that the case against him would be made public.

Daniil Berman, a lawyer representing the reporter, was not permitted inside the courtroom or allowed to see the charges, Berman told reporters outside. He believed Gershkovich would be taken to Lefortovo, the 19th century central Moscow jail notorious in Soviet times for holding political prisoners.

“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 newspaper said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said it was too early to talk of any prisoner swap with the United States, saying such deals are typically arranged only after a prisoner is convicted.

Rossiya-24 state TV ran a segment of nearly five minutes on Gershkovich’s arrest about 17 minutes into its 6 p.m. bulletin.

Its correspondent said Gershkovich’s work had an “openly propagandist character”, citing as evidence a story carrying his byline this week that was headlined “Russia’s Economy is Starting to Come Undone”.

The Russian TV report noted that the Yekaterinburg region where he was detained is a major hub of Russia’s defence industry, suggesting this was the object of his “curiosity”.

As well as escalating Moscow’s diplomatic conflict with the United States, the case could further isolate Russia by scaring off more of the few foreign journalists still working there.

Moscow has effectively outlawed all independent Russian news outlets since the start of the war but has continued to accredit some foreign reporters. Journalism has become sharply limited by laws that impose long sentences for any public criticism of the war, which Russia refers to as a “special military operation”.