A Moscow court ruled that a U.S. journalist for the Wall Street Journal newspaper should be detained for nearly two months on suspicion of spying for Washington, the most serious move against a foreign journalist since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Russia’s FSB security service said earlier on Thursday it had opened a criminal case against U.S. national Evan Gershkovich on suspicion of espionage and the Kremlin said he had been “caught red-handed”.
Gershkovich, who has been working for the Journal for just over a year, told the court he was not guilty. His employer said the case against him, believed to be the first criminal case for espionage against a foreign journalist in post-Soviet Russia, was based on a false allegation.
Espionage under Russian law can be punishable by up to 20 years in jail
The case will worsen already dire relations between Russia and the United States, which is Ukraine’s biggest military backer and has imposed sanctions on Moscow to try to persuade it to withdraw its troops.
The FSB accused Gershkovich of gathering information classified as a state secret about a military factory. It did not name the factory or say where it was, but said it had detained the 31-year-old journalist in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg as he was trying to procure secret information.
It did not provide documentary or video evidence of his guilt.
“It has been established that E. Gershkovich, acting on an assignment from the American side, was gathering information classified as a state secret about the activity of one of the enterprises of Russia’s military-industrial complex,” the FSB said.
The Wall Street Journal said in a statement it was “deeply concerned” for Gershkovich’s safety and that it “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter”.
Gershkovich is the highest profile American arrested by Russia since basketball star Brittney Griner, who was caught arriving in Moscow with cannabis oil a week before the invasion of Ukraine and freed in a prisoner swap ten months later.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said it was not the first time a foreign journalism role had been used as a cover and that Gershkovich’s activities were “not related to journalism.”
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow had no comment. A U.S. diplomatic source said the embassy had not been informed about the incident and was seeking information from the Russian authorities.
Kremlin watchers said the case recalled that of U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff who was detained and accused of spying by the Soviet Union in 1986 before being released and sent home without charge. Daniloff said he had been framed.
TOUGH CENSORSHIP LAWS
A Reuters reporter saw Gershkovich, dressed in a yellow coat, being led out of the court building in Moscow after his hearing and being placed in a black van by FSB agents.
He is expected to be held in the capital’s Lefortovo prison, an FSB pre-trial detention facility.
Gershkovich, who has covered Russia since 2017, joined the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau in January last year.
The son of Soviet Jewish emigres, in recent months he had primarily covered Russian politics and the conflict in Ukraine.
Yaroslav Shirshikov, a political expert in Yekaterinburg, told Reuters he was interviewed by Gershkovich two weeks ago and was due to meet him again on Thursday.
He said the U.S. reporter had asked him about local people’s attitude towards the Wagner mercenary group which is fighting in Ukraine and had told him he planned to travel to Nizhny Tagil, a city which is home to a big tank factory, to ask residents how their views on the Ukraine conflict had evolved.
Shirshikov said Gershkovich had not said anything about wanting information about a military factory and was not “an enemy of Russia”.
Russia has tightened censorship laws since it sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year in what it called a “special military operation,” bringing in jail terms for people deemed to have “discredited” the military.
The definition of what constitutes a state secret, particularly in the military sphere, has been broadened too.
“The problem is that recently updated Russian legislation and the FSB’s interpretation of espionage today allow for the imprisonment of anyone who is simply interested in military affairs,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Kremlin watcher and founder of the R.Politik political analysis firm.
She said it appeared Russia had taken Gershkovich “hostage” for a possible future prisoner swap.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said it was too early to talk of a possible exchange.
Other foreign journalists covering Russia expressed support for Gershkovich online, saying he was a professional reporter, not a spy.
Andrei Soldatov, an author and expert in Russia’s security agencies, said on Twitter: “Evan Gershkovich is a very good and brave journalist, not a spy. It is a frontal attack on all foreign correspondents who still work in Russia. And it means that the FSB is off the leash.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch called for his release.