Russia to start espionage trial of US reporter Gershkovich next week

First hearing of closed-door proceedings scheduled for June 26; Wall Street Journal warns it will be a ‘sham’ and that charges against its journalist are ‘false and baseless’

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom at the First Appeals Court of General Jurisdiction in Moscow, Russia, April 23, 2024. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom at the First Appeals Court of General Jurisdiction in Moscow, Russia, April 23, 2024. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Russia will begin the espionage trial of detained US reporter Evan Gershkovich behind closed doors later this month, a court in the city of Yekaterinburg said on Monday.

Gershkovich was detained by the Federal Security Service (FSB) on March 29, 2023, in a steakhouse in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on charges of espionage that carry up to 20 years in prison. The son of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, the 32-year-old reporter at The Wall Street Journal denies all charges against him.

“According to the investigation authorities, the American journalist of The Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich, on the instructions of the CIA, in March 2023, collected secret information in the Sverdlovsk region about the activities of the defense enterprise JSC NPK Uralvagonzavod for the production and repair of military equipment,” the Sverdlovsk Regional Court said.

“The process will take place behind closed doors.”

The first hearing is scheduled for June 26, the court said.

“Russia’s latest move toward a sham trial is, while expected, deeply disappointing and still no less outrageous,” a statement by Almar Latour, Dow Jones CEO and publisher of the Journal, and Emma Tucker, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, said.

They added that the charges against Gershkovich were “false and baseless.”

“The Russian regime’s smearing of Evan is repugnant, disgusting, and based on calculated and transparent lies. Journalism is not a crime. Evan’s case is an assault on free press,” the statement said. “We had hoped to avoid this moment and now expect the US government to redouble efforts to get Evan released.”

In this photo released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on January 31, 2024, shows a view of a workshop of the Uraltransmash plant in Yekaterinburg, Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Roger Carstens, the Biden administration’s special presidential envoy who serves as the US government’s top hostage negotiator, said that though he had been hopeful about striking a deal to get Gershkovich home before this point, the latest development “doesn’t slow or stop us down.”

“The bottom line is, this was not unexpected,” he said.

Russia has said Gershkovich was caught “red-handed” and the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said he was trying to obtain military secrets.

Gershkovich, the first American journalist to be detained on spy charges in Russia since the Cold War over three decades ago, denies the charges.

The White House has called the charges “ridiculous” and US President Joe Biden has said Gershkovich’s detention is “totally illegal.” The Wall Street Journal denies he is a spy and has called for his immediate release, as has his family.

The Biden administration has sought to negotiate his release, but Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow would consider a prisoner swap only after a verdict in his trial.

Putin has said he believed a deal could be reached to free Gershkovich, hinting he would be open to swapping him for a Russian national imprisoned in Germany, which appeared to be Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence for the 2019 killing in Berlin of a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent.

Asked last week by The Associated Press about Gershkovich, Putin said the US is “taking energetic steps” to secure his release. He told international news agencies in St. Petersburg that any such releases “aren’t decided via mass media” but through a “discreet, calm and professional approach.”

US Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy, left, enters the Moscow City Court to attend hearing on Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich’s case, in Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, March 26, 2024 (Credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko).

“And they certainly should be decided only on the basis of reciprocity,” he added in an allusion to a potential prisoner swap.

The son of Soviet emigres who settled in New Jersey, Gershkovich was fluent in Russian and moved to the country in 2017 to work for The Moscow Times newspaper before being hired by the Journal in 2022.

Since his arrest, Gershkovich has been held at Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, a notorious czarist-era prison used during Josef Stalin’s purges, when executions were carried out in its basement.

US Ambassador Lynne Tracy, who regularly visited Gershkovich in prison and attended his court hearings, has called the charges against him “fiction” and said that Russia is “using American citizens as pawns to achieve political ends.”

Since sending troops to Ukraine, Russian authorities have detained several US nationals and other Westerners, seemingly bolstering that idea.

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