US condemns Russia’s arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter, calls espionage charge ‘ridiculous’

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States has strongly condemned the detention of a U.S. journalist in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on espionage charges and demanded his immediate release.

U.S. officials have been in touch with the family of journalist Evan Gershkovich as well as his employer, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and the State Department is seeking consular access, the White House said on March 30.

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

During a closed-door session on March 30, the Lefortovo district court in Moscow agreed to a request from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor of the Soviet-era KGB security agency, to hold Gershkovich under arrest for two months.

Mediazona reported from the courthouse that Gershkovich’s lawyer was not allowed to be present at the hearing, and another lawyer had been appointed to represent his client.

Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen based in Moscow, had been in Yekaterinburg reporting about the attitude of Russians toward the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine and on the Wagner mercenary group.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was “deeply concerned” about the detention of Gershkovich.

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

Jean-Pierre also issued a statement condemning Gershkovich’s detention and reiterating that Americans should not travel to Russia and those residing or currently traveling in the country should depart immediately.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly joined other Western allies in criticizing the detention of Gershkovich, saying it showed Moscow’s complete disregard for media freedom.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with the US in defence of these fundamental democratic principles,” Cleverly said on Twitter.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also condemned what he called Russia’s “systematic disregard” of press freedom.

“Journalists must be allowed to exercise their profession freely and deserve protection. The Russian authorities demonstrate yet again their systematic disregard for media freedom,” Borrell said on Twitter.

Citing law enforcement sources, the TASS news agency reported that the materials of the case against Gershkovich had been classified as “top secret” and that he had entered a not-guilty plea.

Mediazona and the newspaper Izvestia posted videos taken after the court hearing that showed a person who appeared to be Gershkovich — wearing a hood over his head and with his hands cuffed behind his back — being escorted out of the court.

The person can then be seen being loaded into a black van in a courtyard at the court building before being driven away.

The FSB alleged that, on instructions from the United States, Gershkovich “was collecting information about one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex, which constitutes a state secret.” The charge carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

“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 WSJ said in an e-mailed statement.

Gershkovich’s detention appears to be the first time a U.S. correspondent has been put behind bars since the end of the Cold War and highlights the growing tensions between Moscow and Washington amid the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, launched in February 2022.

The Meduza website quoted one of Gershkovich’s colleagues as saying the reporter recently traveled to the city of Nizhny Tagil, 140 kilometers north of Yekaterinburg, where Russia’s major tank-producing facility, Uralvagonzavod, and several other factories producing military equipment are located.

Gershkovich was officially accredited as a journalist by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and earlier this week was the author of a story focused on the economic slowdown in Russia sparked by Western sanctions imposed in response to the Ukraine invasion.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Telegram that “what the employee of The Wall Street Journal was doing in Yekaterinburg was not journalism” while the Kremlin said Gershkovich was caught “red-handed.” Neither, however, gave any evidence to back up their claims.

Gershkovich, 31, whose family emigrated from Russia to the United States when he was a child, previously worked for Agence France-Presse, The Moscow Times, and The New York Times. His most recent article was published by The Wall Street Journal on March 28.

“The Wall Street Journal is deeply concerned for the safety of Mr. Gershkovich,” the WSJ said.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) immediately condemned Gershkovich’s detention, calling it “retaliation” for reporting the facts from Russia.

Gershkovich “was investigating the Wagner military group. RSF is alarmed by what seems to be a ‘retaliatory’ measure: journalists must not be targeted!” the rights group’s statement said.

Some analysts speculated the move may follow a similar pattern to the last American reporter to be arrested in Russia on espionage charges.

In 1986, Nicholas Daniloff was a correspondent for the U.S. News and World Report when he was detained by the KGB. He was held — without formal charges being laid — for 20 days until he was swapped for an employee working at the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission in the United States who had been arrested by the FBI.

The two countries held a prisoner swap in December 2022 involving American basketball star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

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