Home News Russia to hold secret trial of US journalist accused of espionage

Russia to hold secret trial of US journalist accused of espionage


During his 15 months in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison, Evan Gershkovich read Russian classics such as “War and Peace” and played slow chess via email with his father in the U.S. He tried to stay in shape during the one hour of exercise he was allowed each day.

Friends who corresponded with him described Mr. Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, as positive, resilient and rarely discouraged despite facing the wrath of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. He is scheduled to go on trial on Wednesday and faces up to 20 years in prison on charges of espionage, a charge he, his employer and the State Department have strenuously denied.

“He may have had his ups and downs like everyone else, but he had faith in himself and in his own rightness,” said Maria Borzunova, a Russian journalist who was one of several of Gershkevich’s friends who organized the mammoth task of translating thousands of letters from well-wishers into Russian so they could pass muster at the prison.

At the heart of Gershkevich’s ordeal is a blank slate — Russian authorities have released no evidence to support their claim that he was a spy. Nor is there likely to be any evidence at his trial in Yekaterinburg, which has been declared secret and barred from any observers, nor from his lawyers publicly disclosing anything they learn.

“We believe this is a sham trial based on false charges and therefore the proceedings are going to be ridiculous,” Wall Street Journal publisher Almar Latour said in an interview, adding that it was impossible to predict how the trial would affect efforts to secure Gershkovic’s release.

Convictions are largely par for the course in Russian trials, especially when the Kremlin is involved, as it was in this case. The judge in the case boasted to a local news outlet that he had acquitted only four defendants in his decades-long career.

Friends said Gershkovich, an American citizen who grew up in New Jersey, had traveled to Russia as a journalist for more than five years and had grown to love the country. The Foreign Ministry had reissued his press card several times.

Now he could become a bargaining chip in a Kremlin prisoner swap, as has been the case recently with other imprisoned Americans. In hammering out such a swap, Russia insists that the trial must first be completed, ostensibly putting both sides on equal legal footing.

“He’s a bargaining chip for the Kremlin, they want to trade him,” said Pjotr ​​Sauer, a Guardian reporter and a close friend of Gershkevich.

April 2022, Russia trade Trevor Reed, an American convicted of attacking a Russian police officer, was traded for a Russian pilot imprisoned in the United States for cocaine trafficking. In the most recent high-profile case, in December 2022, the United States exchanged notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout for Britney Griner, An American basketball star was jailed for marijuana possession.

Asked about Gershkevich’s fate in a television interview in February, Putin said negotiations were ongoing but mentioned seeking further concessions. He suggested he might be willing to trade the journalist for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a life sentence in Germany. The most flagrant murders of 2019 The body of a former Chechen separatist fighter lies in a park in central Berlin.

Putin told foreign news agencies this month that dialogue between intelligence agencies was the best way to resolve such issues, and a senior Russian diplomat said the talks were taking place through a dedicated backchannel.

Gershkovich, 32, was detained in Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains, in March 2023. In a vague statement about the case, prosecutors said he had “collected secret information about factories producing tanks and other weapons” “at the direction of the CIA” and “using arduous conspiratorial methods.”

Gershkevich was part of a group of young Western and Russian journalists based in Moscow who took their duty to tell the world about Russia seriously: they worked hard to improve their language skills, traveled extensively and shared a traditional weekend cottage in the Moscow suburb of Peredelkino, a writers’ refuge.

Friends said Gershkovich, whose parents were Soviet immigrants, named himself Vanya and enjoyed Russian customs such as saunas and mushroom picking, as well as sports such as soccer and skiing. Wall Street Journal spokeswoman Ashley Houston said his family could not comment on the trial.

But the climate for Russian journalists grew grim following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Kremlin passed draconian laws restricting depictions of the war and shut down many independent Russian media outlets. Gershkovich was one of many journalists to leave Russia, but he would return periodically to observe how the conflict was affecting Russia.

The prospect of jail time seems troubling but unlikely, given that no Western journalist has been charged with espionage since Soviet times. Ms. Borzunova said Gershkevich’s arrest had crossed a line, making it clear that all journalists, not just Russian ones, are at risk.

“We thought official certification meant something,” she said, “but it doesn’t.”

Lefortovo has long been the capital’s main holding ground for dissidents and other high-profile prisoners, who are kept in cells for 23 hours a day, with just one hour of “exercise” in an equally cramped open-air space.

Gershkovic has met with his lawyers, and U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy has been allowed occasional visits. Declared He was “wrongly detained”.

His friends started a letter-writing campaign to keep him connected, which attracted more than 5,000 letters from around the world, from everyone from grandmothers to primary school students. Many detailed the difficult experiences they were going through, said Polina Ivanova, a reporter for the Financial Times.

Peter Molthoff, of the Netherlands, recounted spending two years in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Now 99, he wrote that he understood what Gershkovich had gone through and encouraged him to stay strong, noting that he himself had a good life after his release.

Gershkovic’s friends were also inspired in part by his unfailing high spirits. Standing in the cage where the defendants were held during pretrial court hearings, he usually greeted fellow reporters with a smile, sometimes making a heart shape with his hands.

He has always maintained a sense of humor, writing to friends that the prison porridge was no worse than some of the meals he had as a child. Gershkovich worked as a clerk in the New York Times newsroom and as a chef before entering journalism. His friends prepare weekly care packages to supplement the lack of fruit and vegetables in Russian prisons and give him candy on his birthday.

He also returned the favor, making sure to send them birthday or holiday greetings. He asked friends to update him on their lives, even encouraging them to send him separate letters describing the same social events. “Like a real journalist, he needed different sources,” Mr. Saul said.

Mr. Gershkovich was a voracious reader, collecting thick volumes of Russian literary classics from the prison library, including Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate.” He also read poetry and works about people in prison. At first, his friends tried to read the same works, starting a book club by correspondence, but they couldn’t keep up, Ms. Ivanova said.

Prison life has improved his Russian a lot. Saul said: “When he first came here, he had just learned Russian and didn’t have slang, but now his Russian has become lyrical and beautiful.”

From the moment Gershkovich was arrested, his friends said they had anticipated it would be a long ordeal, given what others had gone through.

Paul Whelanis an American accused of espionage who has been imprisoned since 2018. Mark FogelAn American citizen who taught at the British and American School in Moscow was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2022 for drug smuggling. Arsu Kurmashevais an editor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a dual Russian-American national who faces an extended prison sentence on multiple charges.

“We realize this is going to be a marathon,” Ms. Bolzunova said. “This is not going to be resolved quickly. We have to be prepared to tell this story for a long time. He is a hostage of the Russian regime. He is being detained because of his work.”

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