Evan Gershkovich to be tried on espionage charges in Russia

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A court in central Russia will try Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on espionage charges amid US attempts to secure his release in a prisoner exchange.

The Russian prosecutor-general’s office said on Thursday that it had filed an indictment against Gershkovich more than a year after he was arrested in Ekaterinburg, a city in the Russian defence industry’s heartland in the Ural Mountains. 

The announcement means Gershkovich’s case will probably go to court in the coming weeks, suggesting he could soon be moved from Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

The facility is run by Russia’s FSB security service, the successor agency to the KGB, and is notorious for isolating inmates from the outside world.

His trial is likely to be held in secret, a common practice for espionage cases in Russia, which carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors said Gershkovich used “careful measures of clandestine activity” on an assignment from the CIA to obtain “secret information” about production and repair efforts at Uralvagonzavod, a big tank factory in the region.

Despite claiming to have caught him “red-handed”, Russian prosecutors have provided no evidence of his guilt in public and held his bail hearings behind closed doors.

The US and the WSJ have said the charges against the 32-year-old reporter are baseless.

WSJ editor in chief Emma Tucker said that Gershkovich “has spent 441 days wrongfully detained in a Russian prison for simply doing his job” as a journalist and that the newspaper expected the US government “to redouble efforts” for his release.

US officials are trying to secure a release for Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, a US Marine veteran sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage in 2020, in exchange for Russian prisoners held in the west.

Russia has previously swapped other prominent US citizens after they have been convicted and sentenced.

In 2022, Moscow traded US basketball star Brittney Griner, following her sentencing on drug charges, for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death”.

Putin said last week that the US was “taking energetic steps to free [Gershkovich]” but warned that “these issues [ . . . ] should only be solved on a reciprocal basis”.

The Russian president strongly hinted in February that he was demanding, in exchange the release of Vadim Krasikov, a hitman sentenced to life in prison in Germany in 2021.

Efforts to swap Krasikov for Gershkovich, Whelan and jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, however, subsequently collapsed when the dissident died in a remote Arctic penal colony months later.

Navalny’s supporters have accused Putin of murdering him to scupper the deal.

Putin said in March he had agreed to an informal proposal to release Navalny on the condition that he never returned to Russia but denied any involvement in his “tragic” death.

People briefed on the talks say the Russian president is fixated on releasing Krasikov, who murdered a former Chechen militant in broad daylight in Berlin’s central Tiergarten park in 2019.

Russia has arrested several more Americans in recent months.

These include Gordon Black, a US soldier arrested on theft charges while visiting his girlfriend in the eastern city of Vladivostok in May, as well as US-Russia dual nationals Alsu Kurmasheva and Ksenia Khavana.

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