Jailed US journalist Evan Gershkovich to face trial for espionage

Evan Gershkovich
Evan Gershkovich has been held in Moscow's notorious Lefortovo prison since he was arrested in March 2023 - NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP

Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter held in Russia for over a year, is to face trial after prosecutors claimed he had been spying on a tank factory for the CIA.

Mr Gershkovich, 32, has been held in the city’s notorious Lefortovo prison since he was detained in March 2023.

He is accused of collecting “secret information” on orders from the CIA about tank maker Uralvagonzavod in the Sverdlovsk region where he was arrested, Russia’s Prosecutor General said on Thursday.

It is the first time details of the accusations against the reporter have been outlined, with Moscow previously saying only that he was “caught red-handed”. His trial will take place in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

Mr Gershkovich, his employer and the White House have all denounced the espionage claims as baseless.

The US has accused Moscow of effectively holding as a political prisoner, describing him as wrongfully detained.

The American citizen is the first Western journalist since the Soviet era to be arrested for spying in Russia and faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

Washington has accused Moscow of arresting US citizens on baseless charges to use them as bargaining chips to secure the release of Russians convicted abroad.

Joe Biden’s administration is under mounting pressure to secure Mr Gershkovich’s release.

The reporter’s family has said they are counting on a “very personal” promise from the US president to bring him home.

Other US citizens detained

Earlier this year, the White House drafted a possible proposal to free both him and Paul Whelan, another US citizen held in Russia.

The proposal would have involved exchanging the two Americans for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian known as the “bicycle assassin”.

The Biden administration also discussed requesting the release of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalany.

However, Navalny was found dead in his Arctic prison shortly afterwards and a formal US proposal was never made.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has signaled he would be willing to see Mr Gershkovich released as part of a prisoner exchange for Krasikov, currently serving a life sentence in Germany.

Krasikov was convicted of gunning down a Chechen dissident in a Berlin park in 2019 while on a bicycle.

Putin suggested talks between Moscow and Washington about a potential swap were ongoing in February, but no progress has been reported since.

Mr Biden’s Republican opponent Donald Trump has championed Mr Gershkovich’s cause, claiming he “will be released almost immediately” if he wins back the White House on November 5.

“Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, will do that for me but not for anyone else,” Trump said.

Mr Gershkovich has endured grim conditions since his detention and shares a small cell with another inmate.

He gets an hour-long walk in a small prison yard every day, tries to stay fit through exercise and relies on fruit and vegetables sent by friends to supplement the meagre prison diet.

Mr Whelan, a former US marine imprisoned in 2018, is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges.

Other US citizens detained in Russia include reporter Alsu Kurmasheva, detained last year for failing to register as a “foreign agent”.

Her employers denounced the case against her as politically motivated.

Almar Latour, the Wall Street Journal’s publisher, and Emma Tucker, its editor in chief, said the move towards a “sham trial” was “deeply disappointing” and “outrageous”.

“Journalism is not a crime. Evan’s case is an assault on free press,” the pair said in a statement on Thursday.

“We had hoped to avoid this moment and now expect the US government to redouble efforts to get Evan released.”