Behind closed doors, US reporter Gershkovich to go on trial in Russia


  • World
  • Tuesday, 25 Jun 2024

FILE PHOTO: Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is in custody on espionage charges, stands behind a glass wall of an enclosure for defendants during a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, April 23, 2024. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich will stand trial for espionage in Russia on Wednesday in a court whose proceedings are classified as a state secret.

No reporters, friends, family members or U.S. embassy staff will be allowed into the courtroom in the city of Yekaterinburg where Gershkovich, 32, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Russian prosecutors say the Wall Street Journal reporter, arrested in March last year, had collected secret evidence about a Russian tank manufacturer on the orders of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Gershkovich, his newspaper and the U.S. government reject the charges. U.S. President Joe Biden called his detention "totally illegal".

Closed trials are standard procedure in Russia for cases of alleged treason or espionage involving classified state material. 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".

"The only people present in the court will be the judge, state prosecutor, the defendant, his lawyer and a clerk. Filming and audio recording are forbidden," said lawyer Evgeniy Smirnov of Pervy Otdel (First Department), an association that specialises in helping defendants in such cases but is not involved in Gershkovich's.

The nature of the proceedings imposes an additional psychological burden on the accused person, he said.

"For the defendant, this is always hard. An open trial means the chance to appeal to the public, the chance to receive support and the chance to see your loved ones at a difficult moment in your life," he told Reuters.

"Deprived of all this, a person is forced to concentrate only on his own defence" and, in Gershkovich's case, to count on U.S. political support and attempts to negotiate his freedom, Smirnov said.

Almar Latour, CEO of Dow Jones and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, said the trial, whether open or closed, was not to be taken at face value.

"It's a sham trial, it's fake charges. However that's served up, that doesn't change those underlying facts," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"Fake charges brought by an autocratic regime that is waging a war on journalism and reliable information at home and abroad. However the trial will take place, it doesn't take away the outrageous underlying assault on free press and on Evan's freedom."

REPORTING ASSIGNMENT

Many Western news organisations pulled staff out of Russia after it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and passed laws soon afterwards that set long prison sentences for "discrediting" the armed forces or spreading false information about them.

Gershkovich was among those who stayed. He was on a reporting assignment to Yekaterinburg in Russia's Urals region when he was arrested by the FSB security service on March 29 last year while eating in a steakhouse.

Latour declined comment on the purpose of the trip or on the prosecutors' allegation that Gershkovich was trying to gather information on Uralvagonzavod, a supplier of tanks for Russia's war in Ukraine.

Asked whether Gershkovich had made an error of judgment by going there and whether the paper should have sent him, knowing the risks reporters face in Russia, Latour said: "We won't speak specifically to the reporting assignment, but we take the safety and security of our employees and our reporters very, very seriously and have an apparatus in place and protocols in place to make sure that our reporters are safe."

"He was there as an accredited journalist, doing his job," Latour said.

POSSIBLE SWAP

Imprisoned for nearly 16 months in Moscow's Lefortovo prison, Gershkovich joined a list of Americans held in Russia at a time when relations between Moscow and Washington are at their most confrontational in over 60 years.

They include Russian-American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva and Paul Whelan, a former Marine who is serving a 16-year spying sentence and, like Gershkovich, has been designated by the State Department as "wrongfully detained".

President Vladimir Putin has said Russia is open to the idea of a prisoner swap involving Gershkovich although the Kremlin says his case is a purely legal matter. The U.S. has accused Moscow of holding him for the purpose of "hostage diplomacy".

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last week "the ball is in the U.S.'s court" and Russia was awaiting a response to ideas it presented regarding a possible trade.

The lawyer Smirnov, who is based outside Russia, said such a trial would typically last two to three months.

He said there was no precedent in Putin's Russia for a defendant in a spying case to be acquitted at trial but the ultimate outcome for Gershkovich would be determined elsewhere.

"There is no doubt the Russian authorities initiated this case solely for political reasons," Smirnov said. "And Evan's eventual fate will be decided not in the courtroom but in the high offices of politicians."

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Tim Heritage)

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