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American journalist Evan Gershkovich to stand trial on espionage charges in Russia

U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich stands inside a defendants' cage during a pretrial detention hearing at the Moscow City Court in Moscow on Sept. 19, 2023. Gershkovich was detained during a reporting trip in Russia in March 2023 and accused of spying — charges that he, the U.S. government and his employer, <em>The Wall Street Journal</em>, vehemently deny.
Natalia Kolesnikova
AFP via Getty Images
U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich stands inside a defendants' cage during a pretrial detention hearing at the Moscow City Court in Moscow on Sept. 19, 2023. Gershkovich was detained during a reporting trip in Russia in March 2023 and accused of spying — charges that he, the U.S. government and his employer, The Wall Street Journal, vehemently deny.

Updated June 13, 2024 at 14:58 PM ET

Russian prosecutors announced on Thursday that they have finalized an indictment against jailed American journalist Evan Gershkovich, and said he will stand trial on espionage charges in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where he was arrested more than a year ago.

Gershkovich, 32, was arrested while on a reporting trip for The Wall Street Journal in late March 2023 and is accused of spying for the United States. Gershkovich has vehemently denied the allegations against him — as has the Journal — and President Biden has called his detention "totally illegal." The U.S. government has designated Gershkovich "wrongfully detained," meaning the government effectively considers him a political prisoner.

Russian authorities allege that Gershkovich used covert methods to gather information about the Uralvagonzavod factory outside the Ural mountain town of Yekaterinburg — a facility that has been sanctioned by the West and plays a significant role building tanks and other weapons for Russia in its war against Ukraine.

In a statement posted to Telegram, Russia's Prosecutor General's office alleged that Gershkovich had "collected secret information" under "instructions from the CIA." But prosecutors have not publicly presented any information or evidence to support their claims, and at the time of his arrest, Gershkovich had been accredited to work in Russia by the country's foreign ministry.

The top leadership of The Wall Street Journal responded to the announcement by Russian prosecutors by calling the allegations against Gershkovich "an assault on free press."

"Evan Gershkovich is facing a false and baseless charge. Russia's latest move toward a sham trial is, while expected, deeply disappointing and still no less outrageous," said the paper's publisher, Almar Latour, and its editor-in-chief, Emma Tucker, in a statement. "The Russian regime's smearing of Evan is repugnant, disgusting and based on calculated and transparent lies. Journalism is not a crime," they added.

The U.S. State Department also denounced the charges, with spokesman Matthew Miller telling reporters that Gershkovich "should be released immediately."

"There is absolutely zero credibility to those charges," Miller said. "We have been clear from the start that Evan has done nothing wrong. He should have never been arrested in the first place."

Prosecutors did not say when the proceedings against Gershkovich would begin, but once they do, he faces the prospect of a trial behind closed doors given that Russian officials say the case involves classified information. If found guilty, he could serve as much as 20 years in prison.

Gershkovich is currently being held in pretrial detention at Lefortovo prison in Moscow, where according to the Journal he has been confined 23 hours a day to his cell, leaving only for meetings with his attorneys or U.S. embassy officials, and for occasional court appearances.

Negotiating against the backdrop of war in Ukraine

With his arrest last year, Gershkovich became the first American journalist to be detained by Russia on espionage charges since KGB operatives took the reporter Nicholas Daniloff into custody in 1986. At the time, the effort to free Daniloff meant having to navigate Cold War tensions between Washington and Moscow. Now, the effort to negotiate Gershkovich's freedom has been complicated by deepening friction between the U.S. and Russia in the aftermath Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Gershkovich is not the only American currently being held in Russia. Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, is currently serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted of similar charges, and Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian American journalist with the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news service, is being detained on charges of failing to register as a "foreign agent."

In recent years, the U.S. has agreed to several notable prisoner swaps with Russia. In 2022, the U.S. secured the release of the U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced to more than 20 years in prison for conspiring to import more than $100 million of cocaine into the country.

Later that year, the U.S. released the convicted Russian arms-trafficker Viktor Boutin exchange for the WNBA star Brittney Griner. While families of detained Americans have cheered these exchanges, critics have said they incentivize Russia to take more Westerners prisoner in order to use as future bargaining chips.

Addressing lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, told House lawmakers the announcement by Russian prosecutors was not unexpected.

"I think we were all hopeful that we would be able to broker a deal with the Russians before this happened. But it doesn't stop or slow us down. We can keep continuing to pursue not only Evan's freedom, but also Paul Whelan's freedom as well," Carstens said in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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