Russian authorities have arrested Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, working in the country and accused him of espionage, a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
Russia’s FSB security service said Gershkovich „was collecting classified information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military industrial complex”, and claimed that he was „acting on instructions from the American side”.
Many, including analyst Mark Galeoti and Russian expat defence lawyer Ivan Pavlov, have accused Moscow of engaging in “hostage taking” by arresting a high-profile reporter who could be used as leverage in a potential prisoner swap.
Gershkovich was detained on Wednesday during a reporting trip to the Urals city of Ekaterinburg. On Thursday, he appeared at the Lefortovo courthouse in Moscow for a brief hearing at which the charges were officially presented. The court ordered him to be held in pre-trial detention until at least May 29.
Pavlov has pointed out espionage cases like this could take up to two years from arrest to sentencing, and Gershkovich’s only hope of release was either to be included in an exchange or for the current Russian regime to fall.
There has been no immediate reaction from the White House or state department as of yet.
„Vladimir Putin’s decision to arrest an American journalist in Russia is an escalation not seen between our two countries since the days of the Soviet Union and the cold war”, stated US. Rep. Mike Quigley. This also marks the first time a foreign reporter has been charged with crimes since the beginning of the war.
Gershkovich, only 31 years old, has lived in Moscow for six years, speaks fluent Russian and is accredited as a journalist with Russia’s foreign ministry. Prior to the Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich had worked in Russia for the Moscow Times and Agence France-Presse. Before his arrest, Gershkovich was reportedly working on a story about Wagner, the notionally private military group run by the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, which has done much of the fighting in Ukraine, reports The Guardian.
Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry, wrote on Telegram on Thursday morning that it was not the first time that journalistic accreditation had been used in Russia as „cover” for other activities.
„What the Wall Street Journal employee was doing in Ekaterinburg had nothing to do with journalism”, Zakharova declared. In turn, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, said Gershkovich was „caught red-handed”, RIA Novosti reported.
High-profile arrests of foreigners in Russia often appear to be designed to boost an “exchange pool” of prisoners that Russia can swap for Russians arrested abroad, explains The Guardian. Last year, Russian authorities arrested the US basketball player Brittney Griner on drugs charges and sentenced her to nine years in prison. She was swapped in December for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer nicknamed the Merchant of Death, who had been held long-term in the US.
Last week, sources said negotiations were under way between western countries and Russia for the possible exchange of two alleged Russian deep-cover spies arrested in Slovenia, but that it had not been possible to reach an agreement. Some speculated that bringing espionage charges against Gershkovich could be aimed at improving Russia’s negotiating hand to bring these and other prisoners back to Russia.
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