Russia starts closed-door espionage trial for WSJ reporter Gershkovich

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A shaven-headed Evan Gershkovich went on trial behind closed doors on Wednesday in a Russian court where the US journalist is facing accusations of espionage.

Prosecutors say the Wall Street Journal reporter gathered secret information on the orders of the US Central Intelligence Agency about a company that manufactures tanks for Russia’s war in Ukraine. If convicted, he faces a sentence of up to 20 years.

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Gershkovich, his newspaper and the US government all reject the allegations and say that he was just doing his job as a reporter accredited by Russia’s Foreign Ministry to work there.

“His case is not about evidence, procedural norms, or the rule of law. It is about the Kremlin using American citizens to achieve its political objectives,” the US embassy in Moscow said in a statement, calling for Gershkovich’s immediate release.

After several hours of closed proceedings, the courtsaid the next session would take place on Aug. 13 - an
indication the case will drag on for months. The reason for the long interval was not clear.

Journalists were briefly allowed to film the 32-year-oldGershkovich before the start of the trial, from which the mediaare barred. Wearing an open-necked shirt and standing in a glassbox, he smiled faintly and nodded at colleagues he recognized.

Prosecutor Mikael Ozdoyev later summarized the charges for reporters.

“The investigation established and documented that...Gershkovich, on instructions from the CIA, in September 2023, in the Sverdlovsk region, collected secret information about the activities of a defense enterprise regarding the production andrepair of military equipment,” Ozdoyev said.

“Gershkovich carried out the illegal actions while observing painstaking conspiratorial measures,” he added.

Ozdoyev later told reporters he had misspoken, and the alleged offence was actually in March 2023 - the month of the reporter’s arrest.

Closed hearing

Closed trials are standard procedure in Russia for cases of alleged treason or espionage involving classified state material, which typically can last several months.

The Kremlin says the case, and the arrangements for it, are a matter for the court, but has stated - without publishing evidence - that Gershkovich was caught “red-handed.”

Against the background of the Ukraine war, Gershkovich and other Americans detained in Russia have been caught up in the gravest crisis between Moscow and Washington for more than 60 years.

President Vladimir Putin has said Russia is open to the idea of a prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich and that contacts with the United States have taken place, but they must remain secret.

The US has accused Russia of conducting “hostage diplomacy.” It has designated Gershkovich and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, as “wrongfully detained” and says it is committed to bringing them home.

The US embassy statement said Russian authorities had failed to provide evidence supporting the charges against Gershkovich or to explain why his work as a journalist constituted a crime.

The trial is taking place in the city of Yekaterinburg, where officers of the FSB security service arrested Gershkovich on March 29, 2023, while he was eating in a steakhouse. Since then he has spent nearly 16 months in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

The Wall Street Journal has declined to comment on the purpose of his reporting trip to Russia’s Urals region or on the specific allegation by prosecutors that Gershkovich was trying to gather information on Uralvagonzavod, a supplier of tanks for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“He was there as an accredited journalist, doing his job,” Wall Street Journal publisher Almar Latour told Reuters in a phone interview before the trial.

Many Western news organizations pulled staff out of Russia after Putin sent his army into Ukraine in February 2022. Russia then passed laws that set long prison terms for “discrediting" the armed forces or spreading “fake news” about them.

Gershkovich was one of a small number of Western reporters, also including journalists from Reuters, who continued to report from inside Russia.

Another journalist, Russian-American Alsu Kurmasheva, was arrested last year and is awaiting trial on charges of violating Russia’s “foreign agent” law and spreading false information about the armed forces, which she denies.

Earlier this month a French researcher, Laurent Vinatier, was arrested and accused of failing to register as a foreign agent while gathering information about Russia’s military.

Read more:

Russia to hold trial of US reporter Gershkovich behind closed doors, TASS reports

Russia sends US reporter Gershkovich’s case to court, accuses him of working for CIA

Kremlin says contacts taking place over possible swap for US reporter Gershkovich

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