Russia sets date for closed-door trial of US journalist Evan Gershkovich

Evan Gershkovich was detained in March 2023 for allegedly ‘spying’ on a Russian defence enterprise in Yekaterinburg.

Evan Gershkovich at court hearing
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is in custody on espionage charges, waves behind a glass wall of an enclosure for defendants as he attends a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, April 23, 2024 [Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters]

Russia will hold a closed-door trial for detained US reporter Evan Gershkovich later this month, a court in the city of Yekaterinburg has announced.

The Sverdlovsk Regional Court said on Monday that the first hearing, scheduled for June 26, will occur “behind closed doors”. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has suggested that it would be open to a prisoner swap.

The court said that the reporter, who was working for The Wall Street Journal when he was arrested in the Siberian city last year, is accused of collecting “secret information” in March 2023 “on the instructions of the CIA”.

According to the charges, which carry a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison, the journalist was spying on the production and repair of military equipment at the defence enterprise JSC NPK Uralvagonzavod when he was detained by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

‘Outrageous’

Following last week’s announcement that Gershkovich would stand trial for his “CIA work”, The Wall Street Journal said the reporter was facing “a false and baseless charge” based on “calculated and transparent lies”.

“Russia’s latest move toward a sham trial is, while expected, deeply disappointing and still no less outrageous,” read a letter co-signed by publisher Almar Latour and editor-in-chief Emma Tucker.

“Evan has spent 441 days wrongfully detained in a Russian prison for simply doing his job. Evan is a journalist. The Russian regime’s smearing of Evan is repugnant, disgusting and based on calculated and transparent lies.”

Latour and Tucker said they expected the US government to increase efforts to secure his release.

Gershkovich has also appealed his detention several times, but his attempts have been fruitless.

Journalists hold "free Evan" signs
The Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees and Wall Street Journal journalists rally in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2023 [Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP]

The arrest of the first American journalist to be detained on spying charges in Russia since the Cold War shocked Western news organisations, leaving almost no US reporters in Russia.

The White House has called the charges “ridiculous”, with President Joe Biden adding that the detention was “totally illegal”.

Russia said the reporter was caught “red-handed”.

Prisoner swap

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said there has been contact with Washington about a potential prisoner swap for the reporter but insisted that those meetings should be held away from the media.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined on Monday to comment on why Gershkovich’s trial was to be closed, saying it was a court decision.

Later, the US State Department said American diplomats will try to attend the journalist’s trial if possible, stressing that Gershkovich should have never been detained.

“Ultimately, we’re going try to bring him home, and we’re going try to bring Paul Whelan home,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters. “And that continues to be our overriding policy when it comes to unlawfully detained Americans.”

Whelan, a US Marine veteran, was sentenced by a Russian court in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges that Washington says are false.

Miller suggested that the Washington is open to a prisoner exchange to release the two US citizens.

“There was a significant offer that we put on the table for the return of both Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan several months ago, and we will continue to try to pursue their release, but I’m not going to get into the details of that,” Miller said.

The US secured the release of basketball player Brittney Griner from jail in Russia late in 2022 in a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies