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U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich is on trial for espionage in Russia

<em>Wall Street Journal</em> reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom in Yekaterinburg, Russia, Wednesday. Fifteen months after he was arrested in the city of Yekaterinburg on espionage charges, Gershkovich returns there for his trial starting Wednesday behind closed doors.
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AP
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom in Yekaterinburg, Russia, Wednesday. Fifteen months after he was arrested in the city of Yekaterinburg on espionage charges, Gershkovich returns there for his trial starting Wednesday behind closed doors.

Updated June 26, 2024 at 10:40 AM ET

MOSCOW — The trial of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich on espionage charges began in Russia’s Ural mountain capital of Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, 15 months after he was detained by Russian security agents in the same city while on a reporting assignment for his newspaper.

The trial will take place in secret out of the public eye — standard for espionage cases in Russia — with no reporters, family or even U.S. Embassy representatives allowed to observe proceedings that could see him sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted. 

Gershkovich’s Russian lawyers similarly face a state gag order preventing them from sharing information publicly about the case’s developments.

Yet a handful of journalists and U.S. officials were allowed brief access to the courtroom ahead of the hearing Wednesday: Gershkovich, looking healthy but with his head clean shaven, was seen standing in a padlocked glass cage. He flashed a quick smile before reporters and diplomats were ushered out of the courtroom.

Prosecutors accuse Gershkovich of collecting “secret information” about a regional Russian tank factory, Uralvagonzavod, on the orders of the CIA.

The weapons factory is located in Nizhny Tagil, a town some 140 miles to the north of Yekaterinburg long considered a bastion of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin and other top Russian officials have insisted the United States was caught “red-handed” — without providing any evidence.

Gershkovich and the Journal have always rejected the espionage charge, noting he is a journalist who was on assignment working with full accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry at the time of his arrest.

The U.S. government has similarly denied the spying charges as “fiction.” Shortly after his detention, the State Department designated him “wrongfully detained” and insisted he was being punished for his work as a journalist.

“We have been clear from the start that Evan has done nothing wrong and never should have been arrested in the first place,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Wednesday as the trial got underway.

“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.”

Gershkovich’s detention — now in its second year — has emerged as an additional irritant in U.S.-Russian relations that were already at dramatic Cold War-like lows following the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

His case is one among many that have fueled Western suspicions Moscow is pursuing a policy of "hostage diplomacy" — ensnaring Americans on spurious legal charges to see what deals emerge.

Last week, U.S. soldier Gordon Black was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing money and allegedly threatening his Russian girlfriend in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok.

Meanwhile, in Yekaterinburg, Russian American Ksenia Karelina faces treason charges for making a small donation to a Ukrainian humanitarian group while she was in the U.S. Russian authorities detained Karelina, a Los Angeles resident, while she was visiting family in Russia in February.

And there are others: Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian American journalist with the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news service faces charges of failing to identify herself as a “foreign agent” and denigrating the Russian army; Michael Travis Leake, a American musician who was living in Russia, faces narcotics possession and distribution charges; and Marc Fogel, an English teacher from Pennsylvania, was convicted and sentenced to 14 years on drug charges.

Predating them all: Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison colony in 2018 on espionage charges. Like Gershkovich, the U.S. has similarly designated him “wrongfully detained.”

The others have not yet been granted that status but, in some cases, family members are lobbying the U.S. government to do so. 

The Journal says don't call it a "trial"

In advance of the trial, The Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief, Emma Tucker, published a letter arguing that calling the legal proceedings a “trial” was a misnomer.

“When his case comes before a judge this week, it will not be a trial as we understand it, with a presumption of innocence and a search for the truth, “ Tucker wrote in the letter, addressed to the newspaper’s readers.

“And we already know the conclusion: This bogus accusation of espionage will inevitably lead to a bogus conviction of an innocent man,” she added.

With the vast majority of Russian trials ending in conviction, focus has long centered on U.S. efforts to negotiate the release of Gershkovich and other Americans.

The White House says it has made substantial offers aimed at freeing Gershkovich and Whelan — hoping to build on previous successful prisoner swaps.

Trevor Reed, a former Marine who says he was wrongly convicted of assaulting a Russian police officer, was released by Russia in April 2022.

And Brittney Griner, a WNBA basketball star sentenced to nine years on drug possession, was freed later that same year.

President Putin has acknowledged efforts at additional prisoner exchanges are ongoing.

In a meeting with international journalists on the sidelines of an economic forum earlier this month, Putin said the U.S. was taking “vigorous steps” to free Gershkovich.

“But such issues are not resolved through the media,” the Russian leader added. “They like a quiet, calm, professional approach and dialogue between intelligence agencies. And, of course, they should be resolved only on the basis of reciprocity.”

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