A Russian court on Thursday remanded an American journalist from wall street journal. Evan Gershkovich, 31, is accused of spying for the United States. In a statementhis diary said to himself “deeply concerned” about the situation. The NGO Reporters Without Borders said it was “alarmed” by “what appears to be a retaliatory measure”, while France said it was “worried” and called on Moscow to respect press freedom.
20 minutes returns to this affair, in the midst of tensions between the United States and Russia linked to the conflict in Ukraine, while Washington accuses Moscow of detaining several of its citizens for political reasons.
Why was the journalist arrested and imprisoned?
The arrest of Evan Gershkovich, of Russian origin, was announced Thursday by the Russian secret service (FSB). The Kremlin claimed he had been caught “flagrantly” spying, without substantiating the charges.
According to the Russian state news agency Tass, the case has been classified as “secret”, which severely limits the publication of information about it. The only details available at this stage: the FSB announced that it had “thwarted an illegal activity” by arresting Evan Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, on an unspecified date. The American is suspected of having collected information “about a Russian military-industrial complex company”. On Thursday, a Moscow court placed the 30-year-old in pre-trial detention until May 29. This incarceration may be extended, pending a possible trial. At the hearing, the journalist, who could not be assisted by his lawyer Daniil Berman, denied the charges brought against him.
If the Russian press and journalists critical of the Kremlin are often prosecuted, foreign journalists have been spared so far, Moscow having preferred to expel correspondents and toughen accreditation rules. Foreign reporters are also sometimes followed by the security services during their reporting, especially outside Moscow.
What is he at risk?
According to article 276 of the Russian penal code, the journalist risks in theory up to 20 years in prison. Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia has passed several laws punishing heavy prison sentences for any criticism, or assimilating journalistic investigations on certain sensitive subjects to espionage.
“The new Russian legislation (…) makes it possible to imprison for 20 years anyone interested in military affairs, the special military operation (in Ukraine), private military groups, the state of army”, notes the independent Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaïa, who heads the R.Politik analysis center.
Several Americans are already detained in Russia, one of whom, Paul Whelan, is serving a 16-year prison sentence for “espionage” in a case that the person concerned and Washington consider fabricated.
Is an exchange of prisoners possible?
Asked about a potential future exchange with Washington, Russian diplomacy deemed the subject premature, calling via its Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Riabkov, to “see how this story evolves”. Several Russian-American exchanges have indeed taken place in recent years.
The latest exchange between Moscow and Washington took place in December when Russia handed over the American basketball player Brittney Griner, detained for drug trafficking, in return for the release of the arms trafficker Viktor Bout imprisoned in the United States. The Olympic champion had been arrested in Russia in February 2022, and had spent ten months in Kremlin jails.