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American journalist arrested by Russians, facing two decades in prison

By Sarah May
|
April 2, 2023

In a shocking development out of Russia, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been detained by agents from the country's Federal Security Service (FSB) on suspicion of spying and now faces a potential sentence of 20 years in prison, as NPR reports.

Gershkovich, 31, has been ordered held in pre-trial detention at Moscow's Lefortovo prison at least until May 29, pending further investigation of the allegations against him, though a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin has already indicated his belief that the reporter had been “caught red-handed,” according to the Daily Mail.

Journalist detained

As NPR notes, Gershkovich was working in the Wall Street Journal's Moscow bureau and had traveled to Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, and that is where he was forcibly detained on Wednesday at a restaurant where he had been dining.

In a statement about the arrest, the FSB claimed that Gershkovich “was gathering information classified as a state secret about the activity of one of the enterprises of Russia's military-industrial complex,” and was doing so “on assignment from the American side.”

Reacting to the arrest, the Wall Street Journal declared that it “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release” of its “trusted and dedicated” reporter.

“We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the paper added.

Guilt prejudged

As the Daily Mail noted, it was not only Putin's mouthpiece who had already deemed Gershkovich guilty before any investigation could even be conducted, with Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova also weighing in on the matter.

“What an employee of the American edition of the Wall Street Journal was doing in Yekaterinburg has nothing to do with journalism,” she opined.

Zakharova continued, “Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the status of 'foreign correspondent,' a journalistic visa and accreditation, are used by foreigners in our country to cover up activities that are not journalism.”

“This is not the first well-known Westerner to be 'grabbed by the hand,'” she added.

“Taken as a hostage”

Dmitry Kolezev, an independent journalist in Russia, explained, according to the Mail, that he offered words of caution to Gershkovich ahead of his journey to Yekaterinburg, telling him that he would be “100% monitored” while there.

“He understood this well, but he was sure that since he was not doing anything illegal, everything would be limited to ordinary surveillance and, perhaps, some kind of intimidation,” Kolezev said. “It turned out much worse.”

Kolezev added, “It seemed to me not only dangerous, but also unpromising, because it is unlikely that anyone will talk to an American in the current situation,” adding that “for sure the very fact of the appearance of an American citizen, not far from the place where tanks or missiles are made, the FSB today considered espionage.”

“In any case, the plot of the case does not really matter – he was taken as a hostage for an exchange, and in fact it does not matter at all what they formally [accuse him of doing]. The decision on his fate will be made not in court and not during the investigation, but at negotiations between Russia and the United States,” the journalist further noted.

Administration “concerned”

As news of Gershkovich's arrest emerged, officials from the Biden administration registered their concern and issued words of rebuke.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, according to NPR, “The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms,” and she noted that “the State Department has been in direct touch with the Russian government on this matter.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also blasted the Russian move “in the strongest possible terms,” and decried what he called the “Kremlin's attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices.”

As Kolezev explained, Gershkovich's freedom likely depends largely on the bargaining positions ultimately taken by leaders of the American and Russian governments, and whether the young journalist will be the beneficiary of the type of extraordinary efforts – and indeed concessions – made late last year to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner after she was convicted and imprisoned in the same country, only time will tell.