By Andrew Osborn and Felix Light
LONDON (Reuters) – A Moscow court ruled that a U.S. journalist for the Wall Street Journal should be detained for nearly two months on suspicion of spying, the most serious move against a foreign journalist since Russia invaded Ukraine and one quickly condemned by Washington.
Russia’s FSB security service said on Thursday it had opened a criminal case against U.S. national Evan Gershkovich on suspicion of espionage. The Kremlin said he had been “caught red-handed.”
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said it was deeply concerned and that officials had been in touch with Gershkovich’s employer and family.
“In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
The case will worsen already dire relations between Russia and the United States, which is Ukraine’s biggest military backer and has imposed sanctions on Moscow to try to persuade it to end its invasion of Ukraine.
“The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
The administration strongly urged Americans to heed its warning to avoid travel to Russia.
Gershkovich told the Russian court he was not guilty. His employer said the case against him, believed to be the first criminal case for espionage against a foreign journalist in post-Soviet Russia, was based on a false allegation.
Espionage under Russian law can be punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
The FSB accused Gershkovich, 31, of gathering information classified as a state secret about a military factory. It did not name the factory nor say where it was, but said it had detained the journalist in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg as he sought to procure secret information.
It did not provide documentary or video evidence of his guilt.
“It has been established that E. Gershkovich, acting on an assignment from the American side, was gathering information classified as a state secret about the activity of one of the enterprises of Russia’s military-industrial complex,” the FSB said.
The Wall Street Journal said in a statement it was “deeply concerned” for Gershkovich’s safety, seeks his immediate release and “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB.”
Gershkovich is the highest profile American arrested by Russia since basketball star Brittney Griner, who was caught arriving in Moscow with cannabis oil a week before the invasion of Ukraine and freed in a prisoner swap 10 months later.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said it was not the first time a foreign journalism role had been used as a cover and that Gershkovich’s activities were “not related to journalism.”
Kremlin watchers said the case recalled that of U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff, who was detained and accused of spying by the Soviet Union in 1986 before being released and sent home without charge. Daniloff said he had been framed.
TOUGHENED CENSORSHIP LAWS
A Reuters reporter saw Gershkovich, dressed in a yellow coat, being led out of the Moscow court building after his hearing and placed in a black van. He is expected to be held in the capital’s Lefortovo prison, an FSB pre-trial detention facility.
The son of Soviet Jewish emigres, Gershkovich has covered Russia since 2017. He joined the Journal’s Moscow bureau in January 2022 and recently had primarily covered Russian politics and the conflict in Ukraine.
Yaroslav Shirshikov, a political expert in Yekaterinburg, told Reuters he was interviewed by Gershkovich two weeks ago and was due to meet him again on Thursday.
He said Gershkovich had asked about local attitudes towards the Wagner mercenary group, which is fighting in Ukraine, and told him he planned to travel to Nizhny Tagil, a city that is home to a big tank factory, to seek residents’ views on the Ukraine conflict.
Shirshikov said Gershkovich had not mentioned wanting information about a military factory and was not “an enemy of Russia.”
Russia has tightened censorship laws since it sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022 in what it called a “special military operation,” broadening the definition of what constitutes a state secret and bringing in jail terms for people deemed to have “discredited” the military.
“The problem is that recently updated Russian legislation and the FSB’s interpretation of espionage today allow for the imprisonment of anyone who is simply interested in military affairs,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Kremlin watcher and founder of the R.Politik political analysis firm.
She said it appeared Russia had taken Gershkovich “hostage” for a possible future prisoner swap.
Prominent Russians currently imprisoned in the United States include Roman Seleznev, the son of a Russian lawmaker arrested for online credit card fraud, and wealthy businessman Vladislav Klyushin, convicted of hacking U.S. computer networks to get information for stock trades.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said it was too early to talk of a possible exchange.
Other foreign journalists covering Russia expressed support for Gershkovich online, saying he was a professional reporter, not a spy.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Felix Light; Additional reporting by Filipp Lebedev; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Mark Heinrich and Cynthia Osterman)