Russia Sets Closed Espionage Trial For US Reporter

Russia’s espionage trial of detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who denies charges of collecting secrets for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), will be held behind closed doors, the trial court said.

Gershkovich, 32, was detained by the Federal Security Service (FSB) on March 29, 2023, in a steak house in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, 1,400 km (900 miles) east of Moscow, on charges of espionage that carry up to 20 years in prison.

The first American journalist to be detained on spy charges in Russia since the Cold War more than three decades ago, Gershkovich has repeatedly denied the charges.

The Journal says that Gershkovich was doing his job and denied he was a spy.

The FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said that Gershkovich was trying to collect secrets about Uralvagonzavod, a powerful Russian defence enterprise which is one of the world’s biggest battle tank producers, for the CIA.

“The process will take place behind closed doors,” the Sverdlovsk Regional Court in Yekaterinburg said.

“According to the investigation authorities, the American journalist of The Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich, on the instructions of the CIA, in March 2023, collected secret information in the Sverdlovsk region about the activities of the defence enterprise JSC NPK Uralvagonzavod for the production and repair of military equipment,” it said.

The first hearing is scheduled for June 26, the court said.

The White House has called the charges ‘ridiculous’ and President Joe Biden has said Gershkovich’s detention is “totally illegal”.

Russia said Gershkovich was caught “red-handed”.

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin has said there has been contact with Washington about potentially swapping Gershkovich but that such negotiations should be held away from the media.

However, the Journal said that Gershkovich was on a reporting assignment when detained and has said his fate illustrates the threats that journalists face while trying to report on the front lines of major global stories.

Both the Journal, which did not immediately reply to a request for comment out of normal US business hours and Dow Jones have repeatedly demanded that Russia release him, thus far to no avail.

It also shocked major Western news organisations. There are now almost no US reporters in Russia, which is ranked by the United States as a hardship posting on par with Freetown, Mogadishu, Damascus and Kabul.

US diplomats say that Gershkovich was not a spy and that he was detained by Russia’s FSB to build up a store of arrested US citizens who could be later swapped for Russians detained in the West.

Among the detained Americans is Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine arrested in Moscow in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison on spying charges in 2020.

Putin suggested in February that Gershkovich could be swapped for Vadim Krasikov, who was convicted of the 2019 murder of a Chechen dissident in Berlin, although he did not mention Krasikov by name.

In March, Putin said he had agreed with the idea of potentially swapping Alexei Navalny a few days before the opposition leader died in unexplained circumstances at a Russian prison in the Arctic on Feb. 16.

A fluent Russian-speaker born to Soviet émigrés and raised in New Jersey, Gershkovich moved to Moscow in late 2017 to join the English-language Moscow Times and subsequently worked for the French news agency Agence France-Presse.

It was unclear whether or not Gershkovich, while on his reporting trip to the Urals, was planning to report on Uralvagonzavod, based in Nizhny Tagil.

The enterprise sits at the heart of the Urals region, where Russia conducts some of its most secret weapons production and research.

It is part of Rostec, Russia’s vast defence corporation run by Putin ally Sergei Chemezov.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REUTERS/Christopher Ojilere

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