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Gershkovich, pictured here in October 2023, has spent his days writing letters to friends and family. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images/File via CNN Newsource)

Russia: American journalist’s espionage trial begins

June 26, 2024

By Christian Edwards and Anna Chernova, CNN

(CNN) — Evan Gershkovich, the first American journalist to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War, went on trial Wednesday, appearing in a Russian courtroom’s glass cage with his head recently shaved.

Later Wednesday, Gershkovich’s family said the past 15 months had been “extraordinarily painful.”

“We’re deeply disappointed that he will have to endure further attempts to discredit him and to paint a picture that is unrecognizable to anyone who knows him. Evan is a journalist, and journalism is not a crime,” his family said in a statement.

Gershkovich, 32, was arrested while reporting for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which he joined in January 2022, just weeks before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. While many newsrooms subsequently pulled their reporters out of Russia, Gershkovich remained, covering the war and how it was changing life in the country.

He was arrested while on a reporting trip in the city of Yekaterinburg in March 2023 and later accused of spying for the CIA. Gershkovich, the US government, and the WSJ have vehemently denied the charges against him. Within two weeks of his arrest in March 2023, the US State Department designated him as wrongfully detained and called for his immediate release.

The press was briefly allowed into the courtroom 15 minutes before Wednesday’s hearing began at 11 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET). During earlier appeals against his pre-trial detention, Gershkovich has made love-heart signs and given a thumbs-up to his friends, family and supporters. On Wednesday, Gershkovich stood cross-armed, seeming healthy and composed, occasionally smiling and waving to the crowd of reporters.

No reporters will be allowed into the courtroom during the trial itself, which is expected to last months. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison. After Wednesday’s hearing wrapped early afternoon, court officials said the trial would resume on August 13, state news agency TASS reported.

The trial of Gershkovich, the American-born son of Soviet-era emigres to the US, has highlighted the extent to which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has harmed relations between Moscow and Washington.

In their indictment, Russian prosecutors said that “under instructions from the CIA” and “using painstaking conspiratorial methods,” Gershkovich “was collecting secret information” about a Russian tank factory. Russian authorities have not publicly offered any evidence for their claims.

WSJ Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker said it was “jarring to see him in yet another courtroom for a sham trial held in secret and based on fabricated accusations.”

“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. It’s outrageous that he has already endured 455 days in prison when he never should’ve been arrested,” she said in a statement.

Pjotr Sauer, Russian affairs reporter for Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and friend of Gershkovich, told CNN, “Evan is just an honest journalist,” and emphasized that Russian authorities have not presented any evidence against him.

“We’re not holding our breath, it could take weeks or months. And we don’t have much trust in the Russian justice system,” said Sauer, who exchanged letters with Gershkovich before the American reporter was transferred to Yekaterinburg.

“Realistically, we believe that Russia will convict him because they arrested him in the end because he’s a bargaining chip for Moscow, for Putin to be exchanged.”

Ahead of the trial, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the US “certainly” does not expect Gershkovich to have “a free and fair trial given that these are charges that never should have been brought in the first place.”

Miller said embassy personnel were traveling to Yekaterinburg, more than 800 miles from Moscow, and would attempt to attend the trial.

Before being transferred to Yekaterinburg, Gershkovich was held in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison, spending almost every hour of the day in a small cell as his pre-trial detention period was extended several times. He has passed the time by writing letters to his friends and family, his parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, said in a recent interview with the WSJ.

“He’s managing the best way he can, in a tiny space, one hour walking outside – six steps, six steps, six steps,” Milman said, drawing a small courtyard with her finger. “He’s been exercising, meditating, reading a lot, answering letters. His knowledge of the Russian language and the culture helped him adjust to the situation.”

Political ‘pawns’

In his State of the Union address in March – with Gershkovich’s parents in the audience – US President Joe Biden said his administration was working “around the clock to bring home Evan” and other “Americans being unjustly detained all around the world.”

Shortly after the first day of Gershkovich’s trial concluded, the US Embassy in Moscow demanded Russia stop using him and other detained Americans as “bargaining chips.”

“This trial is not about the presentation of evidence, due process or the rule of law. We are talking about the Kremlin using American citizens to achieve its political goals,” the embassy said.

The number of Americans being held in Russia has swelled in recent years. Paul Whelan, a former US Marine, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges, which he has consistently and vehemently denied. The US State Department has also declared him wrongfully detained.

After marking another grim milestone last week, surpassing 2,000 days in Russian custody, Whelan told CNN he has spent “an incredible amount of time” in detention “for a crime that never occurred” as he urged the Biden administration to take “decisive action” to bring him and Gershkovich home.

Brittney Griner – the basketball star who used to play in Russia during the WNBA offseason – was detained in Russia and sentenced to nine years in prison after authorities found cannabis oil in her luggage.

After spending nearly 300 days behind bars, Griner was freed in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers. A former Soviet military officer, Bout was serving a 25-year sentence in the US on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles and provide material support to a terrorist organization – charges he and the Kremlin denied.

The Kremlin has consistently said that any negotiations regarding a potential prisoner swap should be conducted in complete confidentiality, without disclosing any details on the progress of these discussions.

Western officials and analysts have accused Russia of using jailed Americans as political pawns. Discussing the case of Ksenia Karelina – a US-Russian dual citizen also on trial in Yekaterinburg after being accused of donating $51 to a Ukrainian charity – Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov told CNN that Russia aims “to build up a bank of hostages with American passports,” which Moscow can use “as leverage” in any negotiations with Washington.

In an interview with American right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested the Kremlin could be willing to free Gershkovich in exchange for Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy organization who was convicted of assassinating a former Chechen fighter in broad daylight in Berlin in 2019.

“Listen, I’ll tell you: sitting in one country, a country that is an ally of the United States, is a man who, for patriotic reasons, eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals,” Putin said.

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