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US journalist Evan Gershkovich goes on trial in Russia

Evan Gershkovich in a courtroom in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
Evan Gershkovich in a courtroom in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Copyright AP/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright AP/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Euronews with AP
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The espionage case against the Wall Street Journal reporter remains opaque, and the US insists the charges are unfounded.

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Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich went on trial behind closed doors in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, 15 months after his arrest on espionage charges that he, his employer and the US government vehemently deny.

The 32-year-old journalist appeared in the court in a padlocked glass cage, his head shaved and wearing a black-and-blue plaid shirt. Journalists were allowed into the courtroom for a few minutes before the proceedings were closed.

The US-born son of immigrants from the USSR, Gershkovich is the first Western journalist arrested on espionage charges in post-Soviet Russia. The Russian authorities apprehended him while he was on a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg and claimed he was gathering secret information for the US intelligence services.

The State Department has declared him "wrongfully detained," thereby committing the government to assertively seek his release.

Jay Conti, executive vice president and general counsel for Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones, told AP this week that the trial is a sham.

"He was an accredited journalist doing journalism, and this is a sham trial, bogus charges that are completely trumped up," Conti said.

The Journal has worked diligently to keep the case in the public eye, and it has become an issue in the combative months leading up to the US presidential election.

After his arrest, Gershkovich was held in Moscow's notoriously dismal Lefortovo Prison. He has appeared healthy during court hearings where his appeals for release have been rejected.

"Evan has displayed remarkable resilience and strength in the face of this grim situation," US Ambassador Lynne Tracy said on the first anniversary of his arrest.

With Gershkovich's trial being closed, few details of his case may become public. But the Russian Prosecutor General's office said this month that he is accused of "gathering secret information" on orders from the CIA about Uralvagonzavod, a plant about 150 kilometres north of Yekaterinburg that produces and repairs tanks and other military equipment.

Not only is Uralvagonzavod strategically sensitive, but it's also a nest of vehement pro-Putin sentiment, where an inquisitive American could easily offend and alarm.

In 2011, a plant manager, Igor Kholmanskikh, attracted national attention to President Vladimir Putin's annual call-in program by denouncing mass protests in Moscow. Putin later appointed him as his regional envoy and a member of the National Security Council.

Evan Gershkovich is escorted from court in Moscow, Russia, January 2024.
Evan Gershkovich is escorted from court in Moscow, Russia, January 2024.Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

If the court finds Gershkovich guilty, which is almost certain, he faces up to 20 years in prison. Russian courts convict more than 99% of the defendants who come before them; prosecutors can appeal sentences that they regard as too lenient and can even appeal acquittals.

In addition, Russia's interpretation of what constitutes espionage is broad. Igor Sutyagin, an arms control expert at a Russian Academy of Sciences think tank, was put behind bars for espionage for 11 years for passing along material that he said was publicly available.

Gershkovich's arrest came about a year after Putin pushed through laws that put a chilling effect on journalists, criminalising criticism of what the Kremlin calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine and statements seen as discrediting the military.

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Foreign journalists largely left the country after the laws were passed; many trickled back in subsequent months, but there were concerns about whether Russian authorities would act against them.

A billboard calling for the release of Evan Gershkovich is seen in New York’s Times Square.
A billboard calling for the release of Evan Gershkovich is seen in New York’s Times Square.Yuki Iwamura/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

After Gershkovich was detained, fears rose that Russia was targeting Americans as animosity between Moscow and Washington grew.

Last year, Alsu Kurmasheva, a reporter with dual US-Russian citizenship for the Washington-funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, was arrested for allegedly breaching the law requiring so-called "foreign agents" to register.

Another dual national, Los Angeles resident Ksenia Karelina, is on trial, also in Yekaterinburg, on treason charges for allegedly raising money for a Ukrainian organisation that supplied arms and ammunition to Kyiv.

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Several Western reporters have been forced to leave since Gershkovich's arrest because Russia refused to renew their visas.

Faint hope

Russia has not ruled out a prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich but says that's not possible before a verdict in his case. That could be months away because Russian trials often adjourn for weeks. The post-verdict prospects are mixed.

Although Russia-US relations are highly troubled because of the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin and Washington did work out a swap in 2022 that freed WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was serving a nine-and-a-half-year sentence for cannabis possession.

But Griner was exchanged for the highest-value Russian prisoner in the US, arms dealer Viktor Bout, and the US may not hold another card that strong. Putin has alluded to interest in freeing Vadim Krasikov, a Russian imprisoned in Germany for assassinating a Chechen rebel leader in Berlin, but Germany's willingness to aid in a Russia-US dispute is uncertain.

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The Biden administration may also want to avoid any perception it is giving away too much. It received substantial criticism for trading Bout, widely called "the Merchant of Death," for a sports figure.

Yet Biden may feel an incentive to secure Gershkovich's release because former President Donald Trump, his main challenger in this year's election, boasts that he can easily free the journalist. Trump claimed in May that Putin "will do that for me, but not for anyone else."

The Kremlin, however, says it has not been in touch with Trump, and Putin's spokesman Dmitry Pekov bristled at the attention given to a possible exchange, saying, "these contacts must be carried out in total secrecy."

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