MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s top security agency says a reporter for the Wall Street Journal has been arrested on espionage charges.
The Federal Security Service, or FSB, the top domestic security and counterintelligence agency that is the top successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, said Thursday that Evan Gershkovich was detained in the city of Yekaterinburg, in the Ural mountains region, while allegedly trying to obtain classified information.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday: “It is not about a suspicion, is it about the fact that he was caught red-handed.”
In a statement, the newspaper denied allegations against Gershkovich. “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,” the newspaper said.
The Wall Street Journal is owned by Dow Jones, also the publisher of MarketWatch.
Gershkovich is the first reporter for an American news outlet to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War. His arrest comes amid the bitter tensions between Moscow and Washington over the Kremlin invasion of Ukraine.
The security service alleged that Gershkovich “was acting on the U.S. orders to collect information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military industrial complex that constitutes a state secret.”
The FSB didn’t say when the arrest took place. Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.
Gershkovich covers Russia and Ukraine as a correspondent in the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau. The FSB noted that Gershkovich had accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist.
His last report from Moscow, published earlier this week, focused on the Russian economy’s slowdown amid Western sanctions imposed when Russian troops began the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February.
‘Unwritten rule has stopped working’
Ivan Pavlov, a prominent Russian defense attorney who has worked on several espionage and treason cases, said Gershkovich is the first criminal case on espionage charges against a foreign journalist in post-Soviet Russia.
“That unwritten rule not to touch accredited foreign journalists, has stopped working,” said Pavlov, a member of the First Department legal aid group.
Pavlov said the case against Gershkovich was built in order for Russia to have “trump cards” for a future prisoner exchange and will likely be resolved “not by the means of the law, but by political, diplomatic means.”
Gershkovich’s arrest follows a swap in December, in which WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed after 10 months behind bars in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
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 U.S. government have said are baseless.
Jeanne Cavelier, of press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, said Gershkovich’s arrest “looks like a retaliation measure of Russia against the United States.”
“We are very alarmed because it is probably a way to intimidate all Western journalists that are trying to investigate aspects of the war on the ground in Russia,” said Cavelier, head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at the Paris-based group. “The Western powers should immediately ask for clarifications on the charges, because as far as we know he was just doing his job as a journalist.”
Russian journalist Dmitry Kolezev said on the messaging app Telegram that he spoke to Gershkovich before his trip to Yekaterinburg.
“He was preparing for the usual, albeit rather dangerous in current conditions, journalist work,” Kolezev wrote. He said Gershkovich asked him for the contacts of local journalists and officials in the area as he prepared to arrange interviews.
Another prominent lawyer with the First Department group, Yevgeny Smirnov, said that those arrested on espionage and treason charges are usually held at the FSB’s Lefortovo prison in Moscow, known for its stringent conditions. It was Moscow’s Lefortovo District Court that ruled behind closed doors to keep Gershkovich in custody.
Smirnov said espionage suspects are usually held in a total isolation, without phone calls, visitors or even access to newspapers. At most, they can receive letters, often delayed by weeks. Smirnov called these conditions “tools of suppression.”
Smirnov and Pavlov both said that the investigation could last for 12 to 18 months, and the trial would be held behind closed doors.
According to Pavlov, there have been no acquittals in treason and espionage cases in Russia since 1999.
Most recently, Smirnov and Pavlov defended Ivan Safronov, a former Russian journalist turned an official with the federal space corporation Roscosmos who was convicted of treason.
MarketWatch contributed to this report.