Journalist's husband urges US State Dept to recognise her as wrongfully detained in Russia

FILE PHOTO: RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan

By Mark Trevelyan

LONDON (Reuters) - The husband of a Russian-American journalist being held in a Russian prison on suspicion of violating Moscow’s law on “foreign agents” urged the U.S. government on Tuesday to designate her as "wrongfully detained".

Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was charged last month with failing to register as a foreign agent when she travelled to Russia in May to visit her elderly and ailing mother. She is awaiting trial and faces a sentence of up to five years.

Her husband Pavel Butorin said she was a political prisoner who had been targeted because of her American citizenship and her work for RFE/RL, which is funded by the U.S. Congress.

The Kremlin has said U.S. citizens are prosecuted if they break the law, and rejected as "inappropriate" a comment by a State Department spokesperson last month that Kurmasheva's treatment "appears to be another case of the Russian government harassing U.S. citizens".

"I believe Alsu was detained wrongfully. I hope the United States can use every avenue available to it to secure her speedy release, including her designation as a wrongfully detained person," Butorin told a news briefing.

Such a designation would amount to saying the U.S. believes the charges are without foundation and would commit the government to work for her release.

When Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia in March on spying charges that he, his paper and the Biden administration all deny, the State Department declared him wrongfully detained just 12 days later. Gershkovich remains in prison in Russia, with no date set for his trial.

In the case of Kurmasheva, who has held U.S. citizenship since 2014 in addition to her Russian passport, the process is taking longer.

Jeffrey Gedmin, acting president of RFE/RL, said the news outlet was working with the State Department in a bid to secure the designation.

"We're engaging, they're listening, we're urging. There are criteria to be met, and we think that she meets almost all of them, if not all of them," he said, urging Americans to write to their representatives in Congress to "help us make the case".

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, asked about Kurmasheva's case at a daily news briefing, said no one should read anything into the amount of time taken to reach a decision.

"We continue to request consular access for her and it has not yet been granted. And I would just say with respect to wrongful detainees: every circumstance is different," he said.

"We look at each of these and try to make a determination as quickly as we can. But we have to gather all the appropriate facts before making a determination."

RFE/RL is one of many news organisations labelled by Russia as a foreign agent - a term with Cold War connotations of spying - on the grounds that it receives foreign funding for activity that Moscow deems political.

Kurmasheva has already been fined for failing to declare that she had a U.S. passport when she travelled to Russia, and is now awaiting trial for not registering as a foreign agent. She has denied the charge.

No further comment was available from the Kremlin late on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Simon Lewis in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio)