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American journalist accused of espionage and detained for two months by Moscow court


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A Moscow court on Thursday ordered the detention of American journalist Ivan Gershkovitch for two months on suspicion of espionage.

The Moscow Lefortovsky Court said in a statement that Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was detained “for one month 29 days, that is, until May 29, 2023.”

Earlier, the Russian security services arrested him on charges of espionage, which is the first time that an American reporter has been arrested on charges of espionage since the Cold War. The newspaper denied these allegations.

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

The service, the highest domestic security agency and the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, alleged that Gershkovitch “was acting on American orders to collect information about the activities of a subsidiary of the Russian military-industrial complex that constitutes a state secret.”

“It’s not about suspicion, is it about the fact that he was caught in the act,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday.

“The Wall Street Journal strongly denies the FSB allegations and is seeking the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Ivan Gershkovitch,” the newspaper said. “We are in solidarity with Evan and his family.”

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

Earlier this week, a Russian court convicted a father over social media posts critical of the war and sentenced him to two years in prison while his 13-year-old daughter was sent to an orphanage.

Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be arrested for espionage in Russia since September 1986, when Nicholas Danilov, Moscow correspondent for US News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB. Danilov was released without charge after 20 days in exchange for an employee of the Soviet Union’s UN mission who had been arrested by the FBI, also on charges of espionage.

At Thursday’s hearing, a Moscow court quickly ruled that Gershkovich should be kept behind bars pending an investigation, according to the capital’s courts’ official Telegram channel.

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

Gershkovitch, who covers Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet countries as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau, could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage. Prominent lawyers noted that previous investigations into espionage cases in the past have taken anywhere from a year to 18 months, during which time he may have been held with little contact with the outside world.

The FSB noted that Gershkovitch had been accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist, but ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Gershkovitch was using his credentials as a cover for “activities unrelated to journalism”.

Gershkovitch is fluent in Russian and has previously worked for Agence France-Presse and The New York Times. His latest report from Moscow, published earlier this week, focused on the slowdown of the Russian economy amid Western sanctions imposed when Russian forces invaded Ukraine last year.

Unwritten judgment

Ivan Pavlov, a prominent Russian defense lawyer who has worked on numerous espionage and treason cases, said that Gershkovich is the first criminal case on charges of espionage against a foreign journalist in post-Soviet Russia.

“This unwritten rule of not touching accredited foreign journalists has stopped working,” said Pavlov, a member of the First Administration’s legal aid group.

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

Gershkovich’s arrest followed a December exchange in which WNBA star Brittney Grenier was released after 10 months in prison in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

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

Jane Cavelier, of the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, said Gershkovitch’s arrest “looks like Russia’s retaliatory measure against the United States”.

“We are very concerned because it is perhaps a way of intimidating all Western journalists who are trying to investigate aspects of the war on the ground in Russia,” said Cavelier, head of the Paris-based group’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia bureau. “Western powers should immediately demand clarifications on the charges, because as far as we know he was doing his job as a journalist.”

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

“He was preparing for the usual journalistic work, albeit a rather dangerous one in the current conditions,” Kolesev wrote. He said Gershkovitch asked him for contacts with local journalists and officials in the area while he was preparing to arrange the interviews.

Another prominent lawyer from the First Management Group, Yevgeny Smirnov, said that those arrested on charges of espionage and treason are usually held in the Lefortovo prison of the FSB in Moscow, which is known for its strict conditions. It was the Lefortovo District Court in Moscow that ruled behind closed doors that Gershkovich should be kept in custody.

Spy suspects are usually held in complete isolation, Smirnov said, without phone calls, visitors or even access to newspapers. At most, they can receive the letters, often with a delay of weeks. Smirnov called these conditions “tools of repression.”

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

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

Recently, Smirnov and Pavlov defended Ivan Safronov, a former Russian journalist turned official of the federal space company Roscosmos who was convicted of treason.

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