US journalist Gershkovich on trial in Russia over spying charges he denies

Journalist faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted; court sets next hearing for August 13.

American journalist Evan Gershkovich went on trial behind closed doors in Russia on charges of espionage 15 months after he was arrested in the city of Yekaterinburg.

The 32-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter appeared in a glass cage in the Yekaterinburg courtroom on Wednesday, with his head shaven clean and wearing a black-and-blue plaid shirt.

Gershkovich is accused by prosecutors of gathering secret information about Uralvagonzavod, a plant manufacturing tanks for Russia’s war in Ukraine, on the orders of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Prosecutor Mikael Ozdoyev claimed there was proof that Gershkovich “on the instructions of the CIA … collected secret information about the activities of a defence enterprise about the production and repair of military equipment in the Sverdlovsk region”.

The court said the next hearing will be held on August 13.

The US Embassy in Russia on Wednesday called for Gershkovich’s release and said the “Russian authorities have failed to provide any evidence supporting the charges against him, failed to justify his continued detention, and failed to explain why Evan’s work as a journalist constitutes a crime”.

The Journal said the “secret trial” will “offer him few, if any, of the legal protections he would be accorded in the US and other Western countries”.

The reporter, his employer and the United States government vigorously deny the allegations, saying he was just doing his job, with accreditation from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On Tuesday, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, Emma Tucker, wrote in a letter to readers that Russian judicial proceedings are “unfair to Evan and a continuation of this travesty of justice that already has gone on for far too long”.

Tucker said: “This bogus accusation of espionage will inevitably lead to a bogus conviction for an innocent man.”

If convicted, Gershkovich faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. A verdict could be months away because Russian trials often adjourn for weeks.

Tucker noted that even covering Gershkovich’s trial “presents challenges to us” and other media “over how to report responsibly on the proceedings and the allegations”.

“Let us be very clear, once again: Evan is a staff reporter of The Wall Street Journal. He was on assignment in Russia, where he was an accredited journalist,” she wrote.

The case, the US Embassy wrote on X, “is not about evidence, procedural norms or the rule of law. It is about the Kremlin using American citizens to achieve its political objectives”.

‘Hostage diplomacy’

The American-born son of immigrants from the Soviet Union, Gershkovich is the first Western journalist to be arrested on espionage charges in post-Soviet Russia.

His detention came about a year after President Vladimir Putin pushed through laws that chilled journalists, criminalising criticism of the war in Ukraine and statements seen as discrediting the military.

After his arrest on March 29, 2023, Gershkovich was held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. His appeals for release have been repeatedly rejected.

The proceedings took place behind closed doors, meaning that the media is excluded and no friends, family members or US embassy staff are allowed in to support him.

Putin has indicated that Russia is open to the idea of a prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich and others, claiming that contacts with the US have taken place, but that they must remain secret.

The US has in turn accused Russia of conducting “hostage diplomacy”.

It has designated Gershkovich and another jailed American, security executive Paul Whelan, arrested in Moscow for espionage in 2018, as “wrongfully detained”, thereby committing the government to assertively seek their release.

In its statement, the US Embassy said Russia should stop using people like Gershkovich and Whelan “as bargaining chips”. “They should both be released immediately,” it said.

The Kremlin on Wednesday declined to comment on talks over a possible prisoner swap deal with the US involving Gershkovich.

“We cannot talk about any signals, and we can only repeat that this topic really likes silence,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“The investigation is under way, the trial is under way, so here we just need to wait for the verdict that will be delivered,” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies