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US urges release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in call with Russia

Evan Gershkovich (AP)
Evan Gershkovich (AP)

The US has urged Russia to release Wall Street journalist Evan Gershkovich, who is accused of spying, during a call to Russia’s foreign minister.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue with Sergei Lavrov on Sunday, who said Washington should not politicise the case.

Russia’s FSB security service said it had arrested Mr Gershkovich on Thursday, accusing him of gathering information about a Russian defence company that was a state secret.

The Wall Street Journal has denied Mr Gershkovich was spying. The White House has called the espionage charge, which carries a jail term of up to 20 years, “ridiculous.”

“Secretary Blinken conveyed the United States’ grave concern over Russia’s unacceptable detention of a US citizen journalist. The Secretary called for his immediate release,” the US State Department said in a statement.

A US official confirmed the statement referred to Mr Gershkovich.

Russia’s foreign ministry said Mr Lavrov told Mr Blinken it was unacceptable for Washington to politicise the case, adding that the journalist’s fate would be determined by a court.

He reiterated Russia’s assertion, for which it has not presented any evidence, that the journalist was “caught red-handed” last week.

“Blinken’s attention was drawn to the need to respect the decisions of the Russian authorities, taken in accordance with the law and international obligations of the Russian Federation,” the Russian foreign ministry said.

“It was emphasised that it is unacceptable for officials in Washington and the Western media to whip up a stir with the clear intention of giving this case a political colouring,” the ministry added, saying Mr Blinken initiated the conversation.

Direct conversations between the pair have been rare since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two spoke face-to-face for the first time since the invasion on the sidelines of a wider March 2 meeting in New Delhi.

Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker decried Mr Gershkovich’s arrest and the Russian accusations about the reporter, but said she was reassured that Mr Blinken and Mr Lavrov spoke.

“It’s a complete outrage that he was arrested like this...what the Russian authorities are saying is utter nonsense,” she told CBS.

At a closed hearing on Thursday, Mr Gershkovich was placed in pre-trial detention until May 29 at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

Many Western and some Russian analysts suggested the arrest was a move by Moscow to secure a bargaining chip with Washington, four months after a high-profile prisoner swap where it traded US basketball star Brittney Griner for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout.

Ms Griner has urged the Biden administration to use “every tool possible” to free Mr Gershkovich.

Mr Gershkovich, 31, is an American reporter who has extensively covered the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the Journal.

A fluent Russian speaker born to Soviet immigrants and raised in New Jersey, Mr Gershkovich moved to Moscow in late 2017 to join the English-language Moscow Times, and subsequently worked for the French national news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).

He was living in London when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, and began travelling to Russia frequently for reporting trips as a correspondent accredited with the Foreign Ministry.

It was on one such trip, to the industrial town of Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains, that he was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service.