Russian President Vladimir Putin says Evan Gershkovich could be released in prisoner swap

Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted that Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich could be released in a prisoner swap. The National Press Club issued a statement Thursday disputing Putin's claim that Gershkovich engaged in espionage and called for his immediate release. File Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE

Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted that Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich could be released in a prisoner exchange with the United States.

Speaking in an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson released Thursday evening, Putin said that Gershkovich, who was arrested on espionage charges in 2013 and faces a 20-year prison sentence, could be released "if our partners take reciprocal steps."

"The special services are in contact with one another. They are talking ... I believe an agreement can be reached," Putin said.

Putin suggested Russia could exchange Gershkovich for the release of a person who "eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals ... during the events in the Caucasus" a possible reference to FSB assassin Vadim Krasikov.

He also pointed to past successful negotiations between the United States and Russia on prisoner swaps adding that the Gershkovich case "probably is going to be crowned with success as well but we have to come to an agreement."

However, when asked by Carlson if he would consider releasing Gershkovich immediately, Putin asserted his belief that the journalist had received classified information.

The National Press Club in a statement Friday disputed Putin's claim that Gershkovich received classified information as an act of espionage, arguing "when a journalist receives classified information it is an act of journalism."

"Evan was approved to be reporting in Russia by the Russian government. His actions were approved under Russian law. If Russia felt he was not a journalist, he should not have been admitted to their country," the statement read, calling for Gershkovich to be released immediately.

The National Press Club also said Putin contradicted his earlier assertion that Gershkovich was working for the special services, admitting in the Tucker Carlson interview that he didn't know for whom the reporter worked.

"Evan works for the Wall Street Journal and only the Journal," the statement read. "He is a journalist and his work in Russia was done as a journalist. Russia has zero proof to the contrary."

Gerskovich still has not been tried, and last month, a court in Moscow extended his prison stay for two months, the fourth delay for the journalist since he was captured.

The Wall Street Journal released a statement supporting the effort to free Gershkovich.

"We're encouraged to see Russia's desire for a deal that brings Evan home, and we hope this will lead to his rapid release and return to his family and our newsroom," The Wall Street Journal said.

"Evan is a journalist, and journalism is not a crime. Any portrayal to the contrary is total fiction. Evan was unjustly arrested and has been wrongfully detained by Russia for nearly a year for doing his job, and we continue to demand his immediate release."