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Evan Gershkovich: US journalist espionage trial begins in Russia

YEKATERINBURG, Russia (AP) — Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich went on trial behind closed doors in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, 15 months after his arrest in the Russian city on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government vehemently deny.
The 32-year-old journalist appeared in the court in a glass defendants’ cage, his head shaved and wearing a black-and-blue plaid shirt. A yellow padlock latched the cage.
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, right, is escorted from court in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
Authorities arrested Gershkovich on March 29, 2023, while on a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains, and claimed without offering any evidence that he was gathering secret information for the U.S.
Russia has signaled the possibility of a prisoner swap involving Gershkovich, but it says a verdict — which could take months — would have to come first. Even after a verdict, it still could take months or years.
Journalists were allowed into the courtroom for a few minutes Wednesday before the proceedings were closed. Also briefly permitted in court were two consular officers from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, according to the embassy. The White House said the officials were not able to speak with Gershkovich.
The hearing ended after about two hours, and the next one was scheduled for Aug. 13, court officials said.
“Today our colleague Evan Gershkovich faced the Russian regime’s shameful and illegitimate proceedings against him,” said Almar Latour, Dow Jones CEO and publisher of the Journal, and Emma Tucker, its top editor.
“It’s jarring to see him in yet another courtroom for a sham trial held in secret and based on fabricated accusations,” the statement said. “While we are told he’s doing well given the circumstances, Evan’s wrongful detention continues to be a devastating assault on his freedom and his work and an unfathomable attack on the free press.”
They noted he has already spent 455 days behind bars.
A top White House spokesman called the proceedings “nothing more than a sham trial.”
“Evan has never been employed by the United States government. Evan is not a spy. Journalism is not a crime. And Evan should never have been detained in the first place,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday. “Russia has failed to justify Evan’s continued detention. He, like fellow American Paul Whelan, is simply being used as a bargaining chip.”
The American-born son of immigrants from the USSR, Gershkovich is the first Western journalist arrested on espionage charges in post-Soviet Russia. The State Department has declared him “wrongfully detained,” thereby committing the government to assertively seek his release.
The Journal has worked to keep the case in the public eye and it has become an issue in the months leading up to the U.S. presidential election.
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich speaks with his lawyers in a court in Moscow, Russia, on April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Alexander Melnichenko, File)
After his arrest, Gershkovich was held in Moscow’s notoriously dismal Lefortovo Prison. He has appeared healthy during court hearings in which his appeals for release have been rejected.
“Evan has displayed remarkable resilience and strength in the face of this grim situation,” U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy said on the first anniversary of his arrest.
Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in prison if the court finds him guilty, which is almost certain. Russian courts convict more than 99% of the defendants who come before them, and prosecutors can appeal sentences that they regard as too lenient, and they even can appeal acquittals.
In addition, Russia’s interpretation of what constitutes high crimes like espionage and treason is broad, with authorities often going after people who share publicly available information with foreigners and accusing them of divulging state secrets.
Paul Whelan, an American corporate security executive, was arrested in Moscow for espionage in 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence.
Gershkovich’s arrest came about a year after President Vladimir Putin pushed through laws that chilled journalists, criminalizing criticism of what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine and statements seen as discrediting the military. Foreign journalists largely left after the laws’ passage; many trickled back in subsequent months, but there were concerns about whether Russian authorities would act against them.
After he was detained, fears rose that Russia was targeting Americans as animosity between Moscow and Washington grew. Last year, Alsu Kurmasheva, a reporter with dual American-Russian citizenship for the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, was arrested for alleged violation of the law requiring “foreign agents” to register.
Another dual national, Los Angeles resident Ksenia Karelina, is on trial, also in Yekaterinburg, on treason charges for allegedly raising money for a Ukrainian organization that supplied arms and ammunition to Kyiv. Several Western reporters have been forced to leave after Gershkovich’s arrest because Russia refused to renew their visas.
With Gershkovich’s trial being closed, few details of his case may become public. But the Russian Prosecutor General’s office said this month that he is accused of “gathering secret information” on orders from the CIA about Uralvagonzavod, a plant about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Yekaterinburg that produces and repairs tanks and other military equipment.
Not only is Uralvagonzavod strategically sensitive, it’s also been a nest of vehement pro-Putin sentiment where an inquisitive American could offend and alarm. In 2011, a plant manager, Igor Kholmanskikh, attracted national attention on Putin’s annual call-in program by denouncing mass protests in Moscow. Putin later appointed him as his regional envoy and as a member of the National Security Council.
Asked about the trial Wednesday during a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refrained from comment, saying only “it’s necessary to wait for the verdict.”
A verdict in Gershkovich’s case could be months away, because Russian trials often adjourn for weeks. The post-verdict prospects are mixed.
Although Russia-U.S. relations are troubled because of the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin and Washington did work out swaps in 2022 that freed WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was serving a 9 1/2-year sentence for cannabis possession. That exchange freed the highest-value Russian prisoner in the United States, arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The countries also traded Marine veteran Trevor Reed, serving nine years in Russia for assaulting a police officer, for Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been serving a 20-year prison sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine.
The U.S. may not hold another strong card like Bout to swap. Putin has alluded to interest in freeing Vadim Krasikov, a Russian imprisoned in Germany for assassinating a Chechen rebel leader in Berlin, but Germany’s willingness to aid in a Russia-U.S. dispute is uncertain.
The Biden administration would also be sensitive to appearing to be giving away too much after substantial criticism for trading Bout, widely called “the Merchant of Death,” for a sports figure.
But Biden may feel an incentive to secure Gershkovich’s release because of boasts by former President Donald Trump, who is his main challenger in this year’s election, that he can easily get the journalist freed. Putin “will do that for me, but not for anyone else,” Trump claimed in May.
The Kremlin, however, says it has not been in touch with Trump, and Peskov has previously bristled at the attention given to a possible exchange, saying “these contacts must be carried out in total secrecy.”
He reaffirmed that Wednesday, adding: “It can only be repeated that this issue likes silence.”

Heintz reported from Tallinn, Estonia. Lynn Berry in Washington and Dasha Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.

web-intern@dakdan.com

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