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Russia starts secret trial for U.S. reporter Gershkovich on spy charges

U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich went on trial behind closed doors on Wednesday in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where he faces charges of espionage and a likely sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors say the Wall Street Journal reporter gathered secret information on the orders of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency about a company that manufactures tanks for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

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

“This bogus accusation of espionage will inevitably lead to a bogus conviction for an innocent man,” Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Emma Tucker said in a letter to readers.

The U.S. embassy said in a statement: “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 Kremlin declined to comment on the opening of the trial. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “We know that this topic is very, very resonant in the United States, but it is not so resonant within our country.”

After several hours of closed proceedings, the court said the next session would take place on Aug. 13 – an indication the case will drag on for months.

Journalists were briefly allowed to film the 32-year-old before the start of the trial, from which the media are barred.

The reporter was shaven-headed, in contrast to previous court appearances, and wore an open-necked shirt. He smiled and nodded at colleagues he recognised.

Prosecutor Mikael Ozdoyev spoke briefly to journalists to summarise the charges. “Gershkovich carried out the illegal actions while observing painstaking conspiratorial measures,” he said.

US REPORTER’S TRIAL HELD IN SECRET

Closed trials are standard in Russia for alleged treason or espionage involving classified material. The lawyers sign non-disclosure agreements, preventing the emergence of any details on Gershkovich’s alleged actions and how he will defend himself.

The Kremlin says the case and the trial arrangements 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, he 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 a prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich and that contacts with the United States have taken place but must remain secret.

The U.S. has accused Russia of using Gershkovich and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, as bargaining chips. It has designated both men as “wrongfully detained” and says it is committed to bringing them home.

The U.S. Embassy 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.

GERSHKOVICH ALLEGED TO HAVE RESEARCHED TANK MAKER

The trial is taking place in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles (1,400 km) east of Moscow, where officers of the FSB security service arrested Gershkovich on March 29, 2023, while he was eating in a steakhouse. 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 the Urals region or on the specific allegation that he was seeking 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 organisations pulled staff out of Russia after Putin sent his army into Ukraine in February 2022 and Moscow 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.

Russia said in the first weeks after his arrest that any exchange could only take place after a trial. Kremlin spokesman Peskov reiterated on Wednesday that contacts with the U.S. on a possible deal required “silence” and Moscow would not speak publicly about them.

(Reuters)

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