The administration of President Joseph Biden says it is prioritizing the immediate release of a Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested on baseless charges of espionage in Russia last week.
Lawyers hired by the Journal were finally able to visit Evan Gershkovich this week, several days after he was arrested while eating at a restaurant. Gershkovich has reported on Russian affairs for the Journal for several years, to include the country’s military operation in neighboring Ukraine.
On Tuesday, a White House spokesperson said the charges against Gershkovich were “ridiculous,” asserting that the reporter was “not a spy.”
“This is a case that is a top priority for the president,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the press secretary at the White House, told reporters on Tuesday.
Emma Tucker, the editor-in-chief of the Journal, said lawyers reported back to the newspaper’s executive team on Gershkovich’s stay in a Russian jail while he awaits a potential trial on the espionage charges.
“They said Evan’s health is good, and he is grateful for the outpouring of support from around the world,” Tucker said, according to the newspaper. “The legal avenue is one of several avenues we are working to advocate for Evan’s release. We continue to work with the White House, State Department and relevant U.S. government officials to secure Evan’s release.”
The newspaper said Russian officials “sometimes withhold access and make communications difficult” between a criminal defendant and his or her legal defense team. The law in Russia normally allows defendants access to a lawyer. The Journal previously reported its legal team was not able to meet with Gershkovich right after he was arrested.
Espionage trials are guaranteed in Russia, but they are typically held behind closed doors. Reporters are typically not allowed access to Russian courtrooms in those cases. If convicted, Gershkovich faces between 10 and 20 years in prison.
The Journal says Gershkovich was credentialed by Russian authorities to work as a member of the news media in that country. Russian officials say press credentials issued by the government are sometimes misappropriated by foreign citizens who are actually engaged in surveillance.
Last week, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Gershkovich’s activity “had nothing to do with journalism” at the time of his arrest, but the agency declined to provide further evidence that was the reporter was doing rose to the level of surveillance on behalf of a foreign state.