Russian authorities detained a US journalist working in the country and charged him with espionage, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Russia’s FSB security service said Evan Gershkovich, a well-respected reporter from the Wall Street Journal, “was collecting classified information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.”
According to the FSB, Gershkovich was “operating on directions from the American side.” Many commentators, however, accused Moscow of “hostage-taking” by arresting a high-profile journalist who could be used as leverage in a future prisoner swap.
Gershkovich was detained on Wednesday while reporting in Ekaterinburg, Urals. He arrived at the Lefortovo courts in Moscow on Thursday for a brief hearing during which the charges were officially presented. According to local media, the judge ordered him remanded in pre-trial detention until at least May 29.
“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich. We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the newspaper said.
Friends and colleagues of Gershkovich called the allegations absurd, describing Gershkovich as a professional and the allegations against him as “ridiculous”.
The arrest amounted to “hostage-taking as a tool of statecraft,” Russia analyst Mark Galeotti wrote on Twitter.
“It’s evident that they’ve taken a hostage,” acknowledged Ivan Pavlov, Russia’s top espionage defense lawyer who now lives outside the country. “They’ve chosen a well-known journalist from a reputable news organization.” The plan is to have an ace in their sleeve for bargaining.”
According to Pavlov, espionage trials like this can take up to two years from arrest to sentencing. Gershkovich’s only chance of release was to be included in a trade or for the current Russian leadership to fall.
“Back in 2015, we were sometimes able to get a few people out, but now that has become impossible,” he said.