The espionage trial of an American journalist will begin in Russia

For almost 15 months, Evan Gershkovich has been locked up in a Moscow jail.

But the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) journalist is being tried a thousand kilometers from the Russian capital, in the city of Yekaterinburg. Here he was detained during a reporting trip.

Prosecutors say Gershkovich was collecting classified information about a Russian tank manufacturer near Yekaterinburg on behalf of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

He, his employer and the US government fiercely reject the accusation and the charge of espionage. If he is convicted, Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison.

“This is a false process. It is scandalous and extravagant,” believes Deborah Ball, deputy director of global coverage for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at the WSJ.

“(Evan) will not enjoy the due process we would expect in any Western court. It will be behind closed doors. It will be secret.

“The acquittal rate in Russia is less than 1%. “We don’t expect any chance of him being acquitted.”

On the streets of Yekaterinburg, there is little sign of the drama that unfolded here on March 29, 2023. Russians walk past the steakhouse where Evan Gershkovich was detained by Russian security agents. Across town, people sit outside playing chess, while trams rumble by.

The WSJ accused Moscow of “hoarding Americans” in Russian prisons to exchange them for Russians imprisoned abroad.

The list of US citizens currently imprisoned in Russia includes former marine Paul Whelan. In 2020 he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Whelan vehemently denies any wrongdoing. As in the case of Evan Gershkovich, US officials have officially designated him as “wrongfully detained.”

Last year, Alsou Kurmasheva – a journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), based in Prague – He was arrested in Russia. Ms. Kurmasheva has American and Russian passports.

On a trip home to visit her sick mother, she was detained. She was accused of spreading “false information” about the Russian military through a book she had helped edit that contained criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

If convicted, she could face up to 15 years in prison.

Among the other Americans behind bars in Russia are:

  • Marco Fogel, former teacher at the Moscow Anglo-American School, which has now closed. She is serving a 14-year sentence for drug trafficking after 17 grams of marijuana were found in her luggage at Moscow airport. She claims that she was using the drug for medical purposes.
  • Gordon Blackan American sergeant, sentenced by a Vladivostok court to three years and nine months in prison on charges of robbery and threatening to kill his girlfriend.

When speaking publicly about Gershkovich’s case, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated he was open to the idea of ​​a prisoner exchange. There have been contacts between the United States and Russia.

But who does the Kremlin want in return?

President Putin has not named names. But he has dropped a strong hint. When asked a few months ago about Gershkovich, the Russian president alluded to the Vadim Krasikov case.

Krasikov is believed to be a Russian agent and is currently serving a life sentence for murder in Germany.

“This is clearly hostage diplomacy,” says Deborah Ball.

“The Russians have been perfectly clear about what their objective is. Putin has barely hidden the fact that he wants to trade Evan and considers him a pawn. He is a political hostage.”

The Kremlin knows that the United States makes deals to get its citizens back. In 2022, US authorities released a convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, to secure the freedom of Brittney Griner. The American basketball star had been jailed in Russia on drug charges.

Now an American journalist is in the hot seat.

It is unclear how long Evan Gershkovich’s trial will last or how much longer the American journalist will remain in a Russian prison.

“It’s impossible for us to read this. We just don’t know, we’re filming in the dark,” Ball says.

“The Russians see this process, this sham trial, as part of some process they imagine. We have no idea where this fits into what will happen next.”

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