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US condemns Russia's arrest of American journalist on spy charges

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 30/03/2023 Roland Oliphant, Nataliya Vasilyeva
A man believed to be Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich - REUTERS © REUTERS A man believed to be Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich - REUTERS

The US has condemned the "unacceptable" arrest of an American journalist who Russia claims was caught "red handed" spying near military facilities

Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Moscow, was arrested in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday. He was formally charged with espionage and remanded in pre-trial detention by Moscow's Lefortovo district court at a closed hearing on Thursday afternoon.

He is the first US journalist to be charged with espionage in Russia since the Cold War, and the move is likely to trigger a high-stakes diplomatic row with Washington.

President Joe Biden had been briefed on the detention, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

"In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin's continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices," Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, said.

Mr Gershkovich, 32, is believed to have arrived in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday for his second reporting trip there this month. He was last seen online just after 1pm Moscow time.

A local Telegram channel reported on Wednesday evening that witnesses had seen plain clothes security agents arresting a man in a restaurant in the city centre. It said the agents put a sweater over the man's head and bundled him into a minivan.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich © Provided by The Telegraph Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich

Yaroslav Shirshikov, a Yekaterinburg-based publicist who Mr Gershkovich interviewed on his previous reporting trip, wrote on Telegram that he was telephoned overnight by a WSJ reporter who said Mr Gershkovich had returned to the city but had been out of contact for over nine hours.

He said he and Mr Gershkovich had eaten at the same restaurant two weeks earlier and realised after receiving the phone call that the detained man was probably the reporter.

A few hours later the FSB, Russia's internal security service and the main successor to the KGB, said that he had been arrested for spying for the United States and that a criminal case for espionage had been opened against him.

"It has been established that Evan Gershkovich, acting on the instructions of the American side, was collecting information constituting a state secret about the activities of an enterprise of the Russian military-industrial complex. The foreigner was arrested in Yekaterinburg while attempting to obtain secret information," the FSB said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.

There is speculation Mr Gershkovich was arrested to give the Kremlin someone to trade for suspected Russian spies arrested in the West - EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/Reuters © Provided by The Telegraph There is speculation Mr Gershkovich was arrested to give the Kremlin someone to trade for suspected Russian spies arrested in the West - EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/Reuters

Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's spokesman, told reporters on a briefing call that the arrest was the "FSB's prerogative".

“They have already issued a statement. We have nothing to add. The only thing I can say is that as far as we know he was caught red-handed,” he said.

Asked if the arrest could lead to Russian bureaux being evicted from America, he added: “This should not happen because it is not about suspicions, he was caught red-handed."

Mr Gershkovich’s newspaper flatly rejected the Russian claims and demanded their correspondent's release.

“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich. We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family," it said in a statement.

Evan Gershkovich - AFP © Provided by The Telegraph Evan Gershkovich - AFP

The FSB did not name the enterprise it suspected him of spying on. Yekaterinburg is a major industrial city and home to a number of defence firms.

Uralvagonzavod, the country's biggest tank factory, is based in the town of Nizhny Tagil about two hours drive north.

Mr Shirskikov said Mr Gershkovich's last reporting trip had focused on the Wagner mercenary company and public attitudes towards it and its founder, Yevgenny Prigozhin.

Friends and colleagues of Mr Gershkovich poured scorn on the suggestion he was a spy, and suggested he had been targeted for his journalistic work or because the Kremlin wanted an American to trade for suspected Russian spies arrested in the West.

Factory - AFP © Provided by The Telegraph Factory - AFP

Many foreign reporters fled Russia in 2022 when the Kremlin passed draconian censorship laws and shut down several critical Russian news outlets in a bid to restrict reporting of its invasion of Ukraine.

Foreign correspondents who remained have generally been allowed to continue working, however, and the arrest has been seen as breaking a long-standing taboo on targeting reporters accredited with the Russian foreign ministry.

“The Evan Gershkovich case is a precedent because until now foreign journalists accredited with the foreign ministry worked under the unwritten rule that they would not be touched,” said Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer who specialises in cases involving the security services.

He added: “It is clear that the US will take all measures to free its citizen. Above all the entire journalistic community will demand American authorities take all measures at the diplomatic level. Such a case can be resolved not legally, but politically. In other words a political decision will be taken - and drawing it up is quite simple.”

Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, said the FSB had expanded its definition of espionage so far that any routine journalistic activity, such as searching the internet or collecting comments from experts, could be used as a pretext for arrest.

"Let's wait to see what the FSB specifically presents, but it appears that they have taken a hostage," she wrote on the Twitter page of her Rpolitik think tank.

"There are many people that could be exchanged: for example, Vladislav Klyushin, who was not swapped in the last exchange...Vadim Krasikov in Germany, as well as some illegals in other countries (Moscow believes that Washington can deal with this).”

Klyushin is a Russian businessman who was arrested in Switzerland and extradited to the United States in 2021. A federal court in Boston convicted him of a $90 million insider trading scheme using information hacked from US companies in February this year.

Krasikov is an FSB assassin who is serving a life sentence in Germany for the state-ordered murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Chechen dissident born in Georgia, in Berlin in 2019.

Two suspected spies from Russia's "illegal," or long-term deep-cover, spy programme posing as an Argentinian couple were arrested in Slovenia in January.

Russia's "illegals" are so-called because unlike most spies they do not operate under diplomatic cover from embassies.

They often live under assumed identities for years or decades in an effort to embed themselves in target countries and provide both intelligence and support roles such as couriering money for other operations.

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