Russian court extends detention of US journalist Alsu Kurmasheva

The journalist is accused of failing to register as a ‘foreign agent’, a charge watchdogs have called ‘spurious’.

Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who holds Russian and US citizenship, attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia, October 20, 2023 [Alexey Nasyrov/Reuters]

A Russian court has ruled that Russian-American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva should remain in detention until early December, adding to what rights groups say is a crackdown on media in the country.

Kurmasheva, an editor for the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL’s) Tatar-Bashkir service, was arrested by Russian law enforcement in the central city of Kazan on October 18.

She is accused of failing to register as a “foreign agent” and collecting information on the Russian military, Russia’s state-run news site Tatar-Inform reported. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison.

On Sunday, a district court in Kazan ruled Kurmasheva must be held for six more weeks as a “preventative measure” in advance of her trial.

RFE/RL acting president, Jeffrey Gedmin, said the organisation was “disappointed” by Kurmasheva’s prolonged detention and called for her “immediate release”.

Crackdown on media

Kurmasheva is the second American journalist to face charges in Russia this year, following the arrest in March of Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter Evan Gershkovich on “espionage” charges.

Gershkovich, who is being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, is the first American charged with spying in Russia since the end of the Cold War. His lawyers, the WSJ, and the White House have all dismissed the allegations, with the US government blaming Russia for “harassing US citizens”.

Press freedom groups and independent journalists have denounced Russia’s targeting of media members, which they say has intensified since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, New York-based non-profit that advocates for correspondents around the world, called the charges against Kurmasheva “spurious” and urged for them to be dropped.

“CPJ is deeply concerned by the detention of US-Russian journalist Alsu Kurmasheva on spurious criminal charges and calls on Russian authorities to release her immediately and drop all charges against her,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme coordinator.

Kurmasheva, who is based at RFE/RL’s headquarters in the Czech capital, Prague, was stopped at Kazan international airport on June 2 on her arrival in Russia to attend to a family emergency, the media outlet said.

Officials confiscated her passports and issued her a fine for not registering her US passport with Russian authorities, RFE/RL said. She was awaiting the return of her passports when the new charges were announced earlier this month.

Russia told RFE/RL to declare itself as a foreign agent in 2017 but the media organisation has contested Moscow’s application of foreign agent laws in the European Court of Human Rights.

‘Another hostage’

Dmitry Kolezev, an independent Russian journalist, wrote that the criminal article being used against Kurmasheva effectively required her to voluntarily declare herself a “foreign agent”. He had previously called the article, which is rarely used, “treason light”.

Russia’s Federal Security Service has declared an extremely broad spectrum of information to be sensitive to national interests, he wrote, and a foreign agent can now be anyone who has simply “fallen under foreign influence”.

“This is a law by which anyone can be convicted at all,” he said, adding: “In general, they’ve taken another hostage.”

Hundreds of journalists have gone into exile since Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine, with state censors closing many respected independent media outlets and launching criminal cases against prominent journalists and regional bloggers.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies