Russia announced this Thursday (30) the arrest of an American journalist from the Wall Street Journal Evan Gershkovich for “espionage”, an unprecedented case in the country’s recent history. Hours later, Russian diplomacy stated that it is “premature” to consider an eventual prisoner exchange with the United States.
The journalist was detained in Russia after being “caught red-handed”, as the Russian federal security service said in an official statement, cited by Russian agencies. “The FSB thwarted the illegal activity of the accredited correspondent (…) of the Moscow office of the American newspaper Wall Street JournalUnited States citizen Evan Gershkovich,” explained the text.
“What the contributor to the American publication Wall Street Journal in Yekaterinburg it had nothing to do with journalism,” said Russian diplomacy spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Telegram. She added that the reporter “is not the first known Westerner to be caught in the act” and that others have “used ‘foreign correspondent’ status to cover up their activities.”
The correspondent is “suspected of spying on behalf of the United States” and of collecting information “about a company in the Russian military-industrial complex”. The crime of espionage can be punished with a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison, according to article 276 of the Russian penal code.
Russian origin and family in the United States
The American newspaper vehemently denied the allegations against reporter Gershkovich and called for his “immediate release”. Prior to joining the American daily in 2022, Gershkovich was a Moscow correspondent for the AFP and previously for the English-language newspaper Moscow Times. With perfect command of the Russian language, the 31-year-old journalist is of Russian origin and his parents live in the United States.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Serguei Ryabkov declared that it would be “premature” to evoke an eventual prisoner exchange with the United States that could benefit Gershkovich. “I would not treat the issue that way now, because you know that some exchanges took place in the past and involving people who were already serving sentences, including American citizens whose sentences were very severe,” he said, quoted by Russian agencies. “We’ll see how that story evolves.”
Independent Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, who heads the R.Politik analysis center, noted that Russia has recently tightened its laws against spying since the attack on Ukraine. “The problem is that the new Russian legislation (…) allows anyone interested in military affairs to be imprisoned for 20 years, in the so-called special military operation [na Ucrânia]in private military groups [como Wagner]or in the state of the army,” she wrote on Facebook.
The analyst also observes that the FSB may have taken the journalist “hostage” with a view to a possible exchange of prisoners. Several US citizens are still being held in Russia, including Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence for “espionage” in a case that the person in question and Washington consider to be a sham.
Whelan was arrested in 2018 and negotiations have been ongoing for several years to release him. The 53-year-old former soldier suffers, according to his family, from health problems in prison, located in the Russian region of Mordovia.
The last exchange between Moscow and Washington took place in December, when Russia handed over American basketball player Brittney Griner, arrested for drug trafficking, in exchange for the release of arms dealer Victor But, imprisoned in the United States.
Another American currently detained in Russia is Marc Fogel, a former diplomat who worked as a teacher at an American school in Moscow. He was sentenced in June 2022 to 14 years in prison for “large scale” marijuana trafficking.
Russian authorities claimed to have found marijuana and hashish oil in his luggage during a customs check as he arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
Siege of journalists
Russian press and journalists critical of the Kremlin are often the target of criminal prosecution in Russia, but foreign journalists have been spared. Moscow has preferred to expel correspondents and tighten accreditation rules.
Foreign reporters are also sometimes followed by security services during their reporting, especially outside Moscow. In this context, many western vehicles have reduced their presence in Russia since February 2022.
After the launch of the Russian offensive against Ukraine, Russian authorities accelerated the repression of the opposition and local independent media, often using articles of the Penal Code that punish the fact of “discrediting the army”.
Originally published on RFI
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