American journalist appears in court as espionage trial begins in Russia

American journalist Evan Gershkovich appeared in a Russian court in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday morning to begin his espionage trial.

Before the proceedings began, the media was allowed into the courtroom to meet him briefly.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter stood in a metal and glass cage, called an “aquarium” by Russian courts, with a shaved head, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans. Mr. Gershkovich smiled at the camera.

For nearly 15 months, he was locked up in a Moscow prison.

But the journalist is on trial thousands of miles away from the Russian capital, in the city of Yekaterinburg. This is where he was arrested while reporting.

Prosecutors said 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 U.S. government vehemently deny the charges and accusations of espionage. If convicted, Mr. Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison.

“This is a bogus process. Deborah Ball, WSJ’s deputy world insurance director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, believes that is outrageous and outrageous.

“[Evan] will not be entitled to any of the due process that we would expect in any Western court. It will close. It will be secret.

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

On the streets of Yekaterinburg, there are few traces of the tragedy that unfolded here on March 29, 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 prisons in exchange for Russians detained abroad.

The list of American citizens currently detained in Russia includes former Marine Paul Whelan. In 2020, he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Mr. Whelan vehemently denies any wrongdoing. Like Evan Gershkovich, US officials have officially designated him as “unlawfully detained.”

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

During the trip back to visit her sick mother, she was arrested. She was accused of spreading “false information” about Russia’s armed forces through a book she helped edit, which criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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

Among other Americans in prison in Russia are:

  • Mark Fogel, a former teacher at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, which is now closed. He is serving a 14-year sentence for drug smuggling after 17g of cannabis was found in his luggage at Moscow airport. He claimed he used the drug for medical purposes
  • Black Gordona US staff sergeant, was sentenced by a court in Vladivostok to three years and nine months in prison for theft and threatening to kill his girlfriend.

When speaking publicly about Mr. Gershkovich’s case, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was willing to accept the idea of ​​a prisoner exchange. There have been contacts between the US and Russia.

But who does the Kremlin want to talk to?

President Putin has not named it yet. But he made a strong suggestion. When asked about Mr. Gershkovich a few months ago, the Russian President alluded to the case of Vadim Krasikov.

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

“It’s clear this is hostage diplomacy,” said Deborah Ball.

“The Russians have been absolutely clear about their goals. Putin barely hid the fact that he wanted to trade Evan and treated him as a pawn. He is a political hostage.”

The Kremlin knows that America 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 was once imprisoned in Russia for drug crimes.

Now an American journalist is facing trial.

It is unclear how long Evan Gershkovich’s trial will last and how long the American reporter will be held in a Russian prison.

“We can’t read this. We just don’t know, we’re working in the dark,” Ms. Ball said.

“The Russians see this process, this sham trial, as part of the process they envision. It’s consistent with what happens next, we don’t know at all.”


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