2023 03 30T125135Z 1911247984 RC2C40AZUE77 RTRMADP 3 UKRAINE CRISIS RUSSIA WSJ

American journalist accused of spying arrested in Russia

2023 03 30T125135Z 1911247984 RC2C40AZUE77 RTRMADP 3 UKRAINE CRISIS RUSSIA WSJ

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Wall Street Journal correspondent and former AFP journalist Evan Gershkovich has been arrested in Russia by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Accused of espionage by the Russian authorities, he was remanded in custody for two months pending a possible trial. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

A first since the war in Ukraine and in a context of increased repression in Russia. Russian justice placed in pre-trial detention, Thursday, March 30, an American journalist from the Wall Street Journal whom it accuses of espionage.

The arrest of Evan Gershkovich was announced Thursday by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The Kremlin claimed he was caught “flagrante delicto”, without substantiating his charges.

According to a tweet from Reporters Without Borders, the Wall Street Journal correspondent “was investigating the Wagner military society”. The NGO said it was “alarmed” by “what appears to be a retaliatory measure: journalists must not be targeted!”

This case comes at the height of tensions between the United States and Russia linked to the conflict in Ukraine. Washington also accuses Moscow of detaining several of its citizens for political reasons.

The journalist’s lawyer excluded from the hearing

Evan Gershkovich, a perfectly Russian-speaking reporter recognized for his thoroughness, denied the charges against him during a hearing in a Moscow court, according to the Russian state news agency Tass.

The 31-year-old American journalist was nevertheless remanded in custody until May 29, the court said in a statement. This detention may be extended pending a possible trial.

According to Tass, the case has been classified as “secret”, which severely limits the publication of information about it. The journalist’s lawyer, Daniil Berman, said he was unable to attend the hearing on Thursday.

Investigation “on a company of the Russian military-industrial complex”

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 Russian security services say they suspect him of “espionage for the benefit of the United States”, accusing him in particular of having collected information “on a company of the Russian military-industrial complex”.

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.

According to article 276 of the Russian penal code, the journalist risks in theory up to 20 years in prison.

If the Russian press and journalists critical of the Kremlin are often prosecuted, foreign journalists have so far been spared, Moscow having preferred to expel correspondents and toughen accreditation rules.

Kremlin warning

Before joining the American daily in 2022, Evan Gershkovich was an AFP correspondent in Moscow. Before that, he worked for the English language newspaper Moscow Times. He is of Russian descent and his parents reside in the United States.

“The Wall Street Journal is deeply concerned for the safety” of Evan Gershkovich, the daily said in a brief statement.

The head of American diplomacy, Antony Blinken, said he was “extremely concerned” by the arrest of the American journalist. He condemned Moscow’s actions aimed at “punishing” the press. The US State Department is in direct contact with the Russian government about this detention, the White House also said.

France, meanwhile, said it was “worried” and called on Moscow to respect press freedom.

Ignoring criticism, the Kremlin claimed that Evan Gershkovich had been caught “in the act”, and warned against any form of retaliation against Russian media in the United States.

Exchange of prisoners?

Independent Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, who heads the R.Politik analysis center, believes that in this case, the FSB was able to take the journalist “hostage” with a view to a possible prisoner exchange.

>> Seen from Russia: Viktor Bout the hostage and Brittney Griner the criminal

Several Russian-American exchanges have indeed taken place in recent years. 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”.

With AFP

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