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Another move hurting US-Russia relations: Wall Street Journal journalist detained in Russia

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Russia’s detention of an American reporter for the Wall Street Journal on espionage charges is sure to intensify the diplomatic row between Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine, and is likely to further isolate them.

The arrest of Ivan Gershkovitch marks the first time that an American reporter has been arrested on espionage charges since the Cold War.

The newspaper denied the allegations and demanded the immediate release of a “reliable and loyal reporter”.

The White House said the State Department was in direct contact with the Russian government about Gershkovich’s detention and urged US citizens living or traveling in Russia to leave immediately.

“We condemn the arrest of Mr. Gershkovitch in the strongest terms,” ​​said White House press secretary Karen Jean-Pierre. We also condemn the Russian government’s continued targeting and suppression of journalists and press freedom.

Gershkovitch, 31, who worked in Russia as a journalist for six years, is the highest-ranking American arrested there since basketball star Brittney Grenier was released in December after 10 months in prison on drug charges.

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

The service, the highest internal security agency and the main successor to the KGB from the Soviet era, alleged that Gershkovich “was acting on instructions from the American side to collect information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex that constitutes a state secret.” The complex was not specified.

Gershkovich was brought to Moscow, where a court in closed session ordered his pre-trial detention until 29 May.

Gershkovitch, who had worked at the newspaper for just over a year, told the court he was not guilty. The employer said that the case against him was based on a false allegation.

Gershkovich, who covers Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet countries as a correspondent at the newspaper’s Moscow bureau, could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.

Prominent lawyers indicated that previous investigations into espionage cases took between a year and 18 months, during which time his contact with the outside world may have been minimal.

The FSB indicated that Gershkovich had accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist, but the ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged that he was using his credentials as a cover for “activities unrelated to journalism”.

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

Gershkovitch is fluent in Russian and previously worked for the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) and The New York Times. He was a 2014 graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine, where he majored in philosophy and collaborated with local newspapers and advocated for a free press, according to Clayton Rose, the college president.

Russia will grant the US consulate access to Gershkovitch, Zakharova said, adding that the case against him will be made public.

He was not allowed into the courtroom and was not allowed to see the charges, Daniel Berman, the attorney representing the reporter, told reporters outside. He believed Gershkovich would be transferred to Lefortovo, a 19th-century prison in central Moscow that was notorious in Soviet times for holding political prisoners.

The newspaper said the newspaper “vehemently denies the FSB allegations and seeks the immediate release of our reliable and dedicated correspondent Ivan Gershkovitch.” “We are in solidarity with Evan and his family.”

State television Rossiya 24 ran a roughly five-minute segment on Gershkovitch’s arrest some 17 minutes after it was posted at 6 p.m.

Its reporter said Gershkovitch’s work had an “overtly propaganda character,” citing a story with his byline this week titled “Russia’s Economy Begins to Decline.”

The Russian TV report noted that the Yekaterinburg region where he was arrested is a major center for the Russian defense industry, suggesting that this was the subject of his “curiosity”.

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 case could further isolate Russia by further scaring away the few foreign journalists still working there.

Moscow has banned virtually all independent Russian media since the start of the war but has continued to accredit some foreign correspondents.

The press has become severely restricted by laws that impose long penalties for any public criticism of the war, which Russia refers to as a “special military operation”.

The sweeping crackdown is unprecedented since the Soviet era. Activists say this often means criminalizing the profession of journalism, along with the activities of ordinary Russians who oppose the war.

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. 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.

Gershkovich’s latest report from Moscow, published earlier this week, focused on the slowdown of the Russian economy amid Western sanctions imposed after Russian forces invaded Ukraine last year.

Ivan Pavlov, a prominent Russian defense attorney who has worked on numerous espionage and treason cases, said the Gershkovich case is the first charge of criminal 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 the case against Gershkovich was built to give Russia “trump cards” for a future prisoner exchange and would likely be resolved “not by law, but by political and diplomatic means”.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said it was too early to talk about any possible prisoner exchange with the United States, saying such deals are usually arranged only after a prisoner has been convicted.

“I will not consider this case now, because the people who have been exchanged before have already served their sentences,” Ryabkov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.

In December, WNBA superstar Greiner 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.

“Our family is sorry to hear that another American family will experience the same trauma we have endured over the past 1,553 days,” Whelan’s brother, David, said in an emailed statement.

“It appears as if Mr. Gershkovitch’s frame was the same as it was in Paul’s case.”

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

“We are very concerned that it may be a way to intimidate 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. .

Russian journalist Dmitry Kolyzev said on Telegram that he spoke to Gershkovitch before his trip to the mountainous Ural city of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, about 1,670 kilometers (about 1,035 miles) east of Moscow.

“He was preparing for the usual journalistic work, albeit a rather dangerous one in the current conditions,” Kolesev wrote.

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