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News groups mark one year since Evan Gershkovich arrested in Russia

The Wall Street Journal reporter has been held on baseless accusations of espionage since last March.

The Wall Street Journal reporter has been held on baseless accusations of espionage since last March.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich appears in an undated photograph. (Courtesy image, Graphic by The Desk)
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich appears in an undated photograph. (Courtesy image, Graphic by The Desk)

News organizations and press freedom groups have marked one year since a Wall Street Journal reporter was arrested and detained in Russia on unsubstantiated charges of spying.

Evan Gershkovich, an American citizen, was detained by Russian security officials in the town of Yekaterinburg while he was having dinner with an acquaintance.

Gershkovich was fully accredited to work under Russian law, with the Journal obtaining all necessary press credentials to allow him to work in the country.

The journalist has been detained on espionage charges in Russia for the past year, with a local judge denying requests to release him on bail. No one from the Russian government has produced any public evidence to support the charges, which the Journal describes as baseless.

Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, where American journalist Evan Gershkovich is jailed. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, where American journalist Evan Gershkovich is jailed. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

On Friday, the Journal dedicated its front page to Gershkovich, blanking out a sizable portion of the main page where editors said his work would have appeared had he not been arrested.

“Evan’s detention is a blatant attack on the rights of the free press at a time when evidence abounds around the globe of the vital role that quality journalism plays in our society’s understanding of world events and in bearing witness to history,” Emma Tucker, the editor-in-chief of the Journal, said in a statement.

“We at the Journal remain committed to providing that quality foreign reporting to our readers,” Tucker continued. “But Evan is also an example of the threats that we and other news outlets face in what has become an increasingly dangerous environment for journalists who put themselves on the front lines to bring you the story.”

Later in the day, President Joseph Biden released a statement calling the anniversary “painful” and describing Gershkovich’s detention as “wrongful.”

“Journalism is not a crime, and Evan went to Russia to do his job as a reporter, risking his safety to shine the light of truth on Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine,” Biden said.

Biden cited a letter written by Gershkovich while detained, in which the journalist asserted he was “not losing hope.” Biden said he intends to keep hope alive as well.

“We will continue working every day to secure his release,” Biden said.

Over the past years, officials with the U.S. State Department have stated their intention to negotiate with Russia toward Gershkovich’s release. News reports indicate that the level of negotiation extended at one point to a proposed prisoner swap, which ultimately failed to materialize.

In news interviews, Russian President Vladimir Putin has asserted his willingness to swap prisoners with the United States. That could also include freeing another American citizen, Paul Whelan, who was detained on similar charges of spying in 2018 and sentenced to serve time in a Russian prison two years later.

Putin has said any prisoner swap must be under the right conditions — in other words, conditions that he considers to be prudent to him and the Russian state. To that end, he proposed swapping the Americans for a hitman, Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence in a Berlin prison.

The United States has no jurisdiction over prisoners held in Germany, but the Journal said the bargain might have materialized if Russia also agreed to free opposition politician Alexei Navalny at Berlin’s urging. The proposal was halted last month when Navalny died under unusual and mysterious circumstances.

While those closed door meetings take place, American officials have been public in their scorn over Russia using detained American citizens as political hostages.

“We will continue to denounce and impose costs for Russia’s appalling attempts to use Americans as bargaining chips,” Biden said on Friday. “To Evan, to Paul Whelan and to all Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad: We are with you. And we will never stop working to bring you home.”

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich appears at a hearing in a Russian courtroom on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (Photo via social media)
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich appears at a hearing in a Russian courtroom on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (Photo via social media)

Life in a Russian Prison

Gershkovich spends 23 hours a day in his cell at Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, an unassuming yellow-and-gray barracks that could easily be mistaken for a military housing unit.

He is able to receive letters from his family, friends, attorneys and colleagues at the Journal, though sometimes those letters come in redacted, with guards stripping out certain details that they don’t want passed on to the reporter. Likewise, Gershkovich is able to send letters to his family and attorneys, though they’re often censored for the same reasons.

The guards snap their fingers when they want no one in sight, and bang their keys together when transporting an inmate from one place to another. One room where inmates are regularly sent is an interrogation chamber, which includes nothing more than a table, a chair, a calendar and a window looking out over the prison’s courtyard.

There are differing reports about the environment of Gershkovich’s cell, and what he is able to eat while in custody. Some reports say things are quiet to the point where a person is likely to go insane; according to Gershkovich’s own letters, he is able to follow along with the news and some soccer matches thanks to a TV located near his cell, which is kept at a loud volume.

Reports on his diet fluctuate, though his parents say friends and well-wishers occasionally bring him fresh fruit and vegetables. In a letter sent to his parents and reported on by the Journal, Gershkovich said his breakfast consists of oatmeal cereal, hot cream of wheat or “wheat gruel,” which he joked was akin to what his mother made him for breakfast as a child.

Gershkovich also affirmed receiving care packages from friends, which include basics like soap, toothpaste, clothes and shoes. It is difficult to confirm if Gershkovich actually received the items, or if he was instructed to say that he did.

His family has been able to meet with him twice. His lawyers meet with him on a more-regular basis. When he appears in court, Gershkovich is instructed to stand in a glass box, where credentialed photographers are allowed to take his picture before court hearings. The hearings themselves are closed to the public. The details of what occurs inside are hard to confirm.

After the hearings, Gershkovich is ushered back to his prison cell, where — like other inmates — he is kept in isolation from other people most of the day. There is no one to hear from, no one to speak with. Former prisoners describe the isolation as depressing, and the desire for human contact strong.

“This place was so locked down, I don’t even know if I had yelled out that other prisoners could have heard me,” Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran who was held for less than a week at Lefortovo last year, told the Journal in an interview. “Whenever you move in the prison, you’d see no one at all.”

Reed was ultimately released through a prisoner swap orchestrated by American and Russian officials. Gershkovich is likely to be released under the same conditions, though it is anyone’s guess when that will happen — and Russia appears to have the greater leverage.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 10 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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