Russia’s top security agency says it has arrested a reporter for The Wall Street Journal over alleged espionage.
Journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg on spying charges, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. He was brought to Moscow where a court at a closed hearing ordered him held in pre-trial detention until 29 May.
The TASS state news agency said he pleaded not guilty. Authorities released no evidence and the case is said to have been marked “top secret”.
The arrest is the most serious public move against an international journalist since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year. Espionage charges against an American news outlet employee have not been seen since the end of the Cold War – with the arrest coming amid a bitter war of words over the Ukraine war.
If convicted, Mr Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) said it was “deeply concerned” for Mr Gershkovich’s safety and that it “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter”.
Daniil Berman, a lawyer for Mr Gershkovich, was not permitted inside the courtroom or allowed to see the charges, he told reporters outside. Mr Berman said he believed Mr Gershkovich would be taken to Lefortovo, the 19th century central Moscow jail notorious in Soviet times for holding political prisoners.
The US has been full-throated in its support of Kyiv, with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin having repeatedly hit out at Washington and the West for the weapons it is providing Ukraine. Mr Putin’s rhetoric has only grown more inflammatory as his invasion has faltered amid months of intense fighting in the country’s eastern regions.
Moscow has a habit of using detainees for political leverage. Basketball star Brittney Griner was caught arriving in Moscow with cannabis oil a week before the invasion of Ukraine began and was freed in a prisoner swap in December. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, told the state RIA news agency that it was too early to talk of a possible prisoner swap for Mr Gershkovich.
Another American, Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government have said are baseless. As for US correspondents being detained by Russia, Nicholas Daniloff, based in Moscow for US News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB in September 1986. The US believed he had been detained in retaliation for the arrest by the FBI of an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission. Mr Daniloff was released without charges 20 days later, with the UN worker also allowed to leave the US.
The FSB said it had “stopped the illegal activities of US citizen Gershkovich Evan, born in 1991, a correspondent of the Moscow bureau of the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal, accredited at the Russian foreign ministry, who is suspected of spying in the interests of the American government”.
The Kremlin claimed the reporter had been “caught red-handed”. It was not immediately clear when he was arrested. The FSB said Mr Gershkovich had been tasked “by the American side” with gathering information on “the activities of one of the enterprises of the military defence complex”, believed to be a factory. The security service did not name the factory or say where it was but added that it had detained the 31-year-old in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg as he was trying to procure secret information.
The FSB did not provide documentary or video evidence of his guilt. Mr Gershkovich was reportedly visiting Nizhny Tagil, the site of the Russian battle tank producer Uralvagonzavod, according to Russian news website Meduza, which is based in Latvia. Dozens of companies producing weapons are based in the city.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that Mr Gershkovich’s activities in Yekaterinburg were “not related to journalism”. Ms Zakharova later suggested there would be an opportunity to verify the allegations as they would be made public.
“Relevant statements have been made through our security services... I think [they] will also provide it publicly, and you will have an opportunity to verify it,” she said at an afternoon briefing.
The Kremlin said other journalists working for the US publication in Russia could remain in post, provided they had the right credentials and were carrying out what it called “normal journalistic activity”. A diplomatic source said the US embassy in Moscow had not been informed and was seeking information from authorities.
Andrei Soldatov, an expert in Russia’s security agencies who is outside the country, said on social media: “Evan Gershkovich is a very good and brave journalist, not a spy, for Christ’s sake. It [his detention] is a frontal attack on all foreign correspondents who still work in Russia. And it means that the FSB is off the leash.”