Journalist to remain in pretrial detention at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison
A Moscow court on Tuesday upheld the detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested while on a reporting trip last month and held on an allegation of espionage that the Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny.
After a closed hearing, Mr. Gershkovich, a 31-year-old American citizen, was denied bail and ordered held in the Russian capital’s Lefortovo prison pending trial. Lefortovo has often been used to house prominent political prisoners.
The hearing was held behind closed doors, as is typical for most hearings connected with espionage charges. It is also exceedingly rare for defendants to win appeals or be acquitted in such cases in Russia, where espionage laws are increasingly wielded for political purposes, according to Western officials, activists and Russian lawyers.
The U.S. government has designated Mr. Gershkovich as wrongfully detained and called for his immediate release. The American ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, who was allowed consular access to Mr. Gershkovich for the first time Monday, attended the hearing.
“The charges are baseless and we call on the Russian Federation to immediately release” Mr. Gershkovich, Ms. Tracy told reporters on the courthouse steps after the hearing. She also called for the release of Paul Whelan, another American being held by Russia. The U.S. government has designated Mr. Whelan as wrongfully detained, too.
Reporters and camera crews were allowed to take pictures of Mr. Gershkovich—clad in a blue plaid shirt and faded jeans—before the start of the proceedings, which were then closed to the press. It was the first time Mr. Gershkovich has been seen in public since March 30.
Ahead of the judge’s ruling, Mr. Gershkovich was shown pacing inside the dock—a transparent box used to hold defendants in Russian courts—and conferring with his lawyers. Two Russian officers whose faces were covered stood near the box.
Mr. Gershkovich was accredited to work as a journalist in Russia by the country’s Foreign Ministry at the time of his detention while reporting in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, nearly 900 miles east of Moscow. On April 7, he was formally charged with espionage, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, said the journalist “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.”
Russian authorities haven’t publicly presented evidence to support the allegations against the reporter.
A conviction in the case carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Virtually all espionage trials in Russia end in a guilty verdict.
Russian authorities have ordered that Mr. Gershkovich be held in pretrial detention until May 29. They can request an extension of that period.
The American journalist’s lawyers talk to the media outside the Moscow court. Photo: Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Maria Korchagina of the ZKS law firm, which is representing Mr. Gershkovich and retained by Dow Jones & Co., the parent company of the Journal, told reporters outside the courthouse that his lawyers requested that he be transferred to house arrest, agree to constraints on his movements or granted bail. Dow Jones was willing to guarantee bail of 50 million rubles, equivalent to about $600,000, she said. The court refused to grant the appeal.
Mr. Gershkovich’s lawyers said he has pleaded not guilty to the spying allegation.
“Our client does not admit guilt and is ready to prove it,” Ms. Korchagina said, adding that Mr. Gershkovich made a statement emphasizing his innocence during Tuesday’s hearing.
Tatyana Nozhkina, another ZKS lawyer representing Mr. Gershkovich, said they are planning another appeal of the pretrial detention.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “We’re deeply concerned by the news that Russia will continue to wrongfully detain Evan following a sham judicial proceeding,” adding that the president wants Russia to immediately release him, along with Mr. Whelan.
In a joint statement, Almar Latour, chief executive of Dow Jones and publisher of the Journal, and Emma Tucker, editor in chief of the Journal, said that “while we expected this development, it is nonetheless disappointing.”
“Evan is wrongfully detained and the charges of espionage against him are false,” they wrote. “We demand his immediate release and are doing everything in our power to secure it.”
Legal experts say it could be many months before Mr. Gershkovich’s case is brought to trial, as investigators gather materials for trial and further hearings are conducted to extend his arrest.
Journalists, including Russian state broadcasters, were allowed into the courtroom briefly ahead of the hearing to capture images of Mr. Gershkovich.
“It was great to see him and to see him well physically, but I could see that he was nervous,” said Vasily Polonsky, a journalist and friend of Mr. Gershkovich, who shouted words of encouragement to the American reporter.
The press then waited in a separate room as the hearing took place. A television broadcast the final 10 minutes of the hearing, when the judge quickly read the ruling and then turned to Mr. Gershkovich to ask if he had understood. “Nothing is needed. Everything is clear. Thank you,” the American responded.
Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest has spurred international condemnation. President Biden has called the arrest “totally illegal.” Former Vice President Mike Pence has urged the Biden administration to expel Russian diplomats.
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich at the court hearing. Photo: Maxim Shipenkov/Shutterstock
Ms. Nozhkina said that Mr. Gershkovich remains upbeat and is in good health. He spends his time watching culinary programs, exercising during the hour he is allowed to leave his cell each day and reading Russian classics. “We laugh and joke a lot,” she said. “Humor helps in these situations.”
“His mood is combative,” she added. “He is ready to continue to defend his innocence…as well as press freedom.”
In a video interview with the Journal published Friday, Mr. Gershkovich’s parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. decades ago, expressed optimism that their son would eventually be released.
“It’s one of the American qualities that we absorbed, you know, be optimistic, believe in [a] happy ending,” Ms. Milman said in the video.
On Friday, she received a letter to the family that her son hand wrote in Russian from prison.
“I want to say that I am not losing hope,” Mr. Gershkovich wrote in the two-page correspondence.
While Russia’s justice system guarantees defendants the right to a jury trial open to the public, exemptions in the case of espionage mean that Mr. Gershkovich’s trial is likely to take place before a judge and be held in secret.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a trained lawyer, has promised to introduce what he described as a “dictatorship of the law.” He has steadily used the Russian legal system to punish political opponents and suppress dissent, say activists, Western officials and Russian lawyers.
According to a recent report by the U.S. State Department, Russian judges are “subject to influence from the executive branch, the armed forces, and other security forces, particularly in high-profile or politically sensitive cases.”
While espionage cases were once relatively rare, they have become more frequent under Mr. Putin’s rule, particularly since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. According to Ivan Pavlov, a Russian lawyer who specialized in espionage cases, there are about 50 such cases each year.
Mr. Pavlov left Russia in 2021 when he came under investigation for his work defending a journalist accused of treason for allegedly disclosing military secrets.
There has been one only case in which a Russian court dropped treason or espionage charges against a defendant prior to trial, said Mr. Pavlov. Svetlana Davydova, a mother of seven children who was accused of passing information about Russia’s military to Ukraine, was freed in 2015 after a major public campaign to release her on humanitarian grounds.
“But that was a different time, and feels like it was in a different planet,” said Mr. Pavlov.