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US journalist’s spy trial due to start in Russia

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For nearly 15 months, Evan Gershkovich has been locked away in a Moscow jail.

But the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter is standing trial a thousand miles from the Russian capital, in the city of Yekaterinburg. This is where he was arrested while on a reporting trip.

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

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

“This is a bogus process. It’s outrageous and outlandish,” believes Deborah Ball, deputy world coverage chief for Europe, Middle East and Africa at the WSJ.

“[Evan] will not enjoy any of the due process that we would expect in any Western court. It will be closed door. It will be secret.

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

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

The WSJ has accused Moscow of “stockpiling Americans” in Russian jails to be traded for Russians imprisoned abroad.

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

Mr Whelan vehemently denies having committed any crime. As in the case of Evan Gershkovich, US officials have officially designated him “wrongfully detained”.

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

On a trip home to visit her ailing mother, she was detained. She was charged with spreading “false information” about the Russian armed forces over a book she had helped to edit which contains criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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

Among the other Americans behind bars in Russia are:

  • Mark Fogel, a former teacher at the Anglo-American School of Moscow, which has now closed. He is serving a 14-year sentence for drug smuggling after 17g of marijuana were found in his luggage at Moscow airport. He claims he was using the drug for medical purposes
  • Gordon Black, a US staff sergeant, sentenced by a court in Vladivostok to three years and nine months in a penal colony on charges of theft and threatening to kill his girlfriend.

When he has spoken publicly about the case of Mr Gershkovich, Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated he is open to the idea of a prisoner swap. There have been contacts between the US and Russia.

But whom does the Kremlin want in exchange?

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

Believed to be a Russian agent, Mr Krasikov is currently serving a life sentence for murder in Germany.

“It’s evident that this is hostage diplomacy,” says Deborah Ball.

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

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

Now an American journalist is in the dock.

It is unclear how long the trial of Evan Gershkovich will last and how much longer the US reporter will be in a Russian prison.

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

“The Russians regard this process, this sham trial, as part of some process they envision. Where it fits into what happens next, we have absolutely no idea.”

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