Enjoying ad-free content?
Since July 1, 2024, we have disabled all ads to improve your reading experience.
This commitment costs us $10,000 a month. Your support can help us fill the gap.
Support us
Our journalism is banned in Russia. We need your help to keep providing you with the truth.

U.S. Journalist Evan Gershkovich Goes on Trial for Espionage in Closed Russian Court

Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP

U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich's trial for espionage in Russia begins behind closed doors Wednesday in what his employer, The Wall Street Journal, has already slammed as a “sham” process.

Gershkovich, 32, a former reporter for The Moscow Times, became the first Western journalist to be arrested in Russia on spying charges since the Cold War when he was detained by Federal Security Service (FSB) agents during a reporting trip last March.

He, his employer and the U.S. government strongly deny the accusations against him. 

On Wednesday, he appeared in the glass defendants' cage at Yekaterinburg's Sverdlovsk Regional Court, smiling and greeting journalists, according to correspondents in the courtroom. Just a few minutes later, journalists were asked to leave the courtroom so that proceedings could start.

The beginning of his trial comes 15 months after his detention. He has spent that time in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, a facility notorious for its isolated conditions.

Gershkovich faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if he is convicted, an outcome that is all but certain.

“When his case comes before a judge this week, it will not be a trial as we understand it, with a presumption of innocence and a search for the truth,” Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Emma Tucker said in a statement ahead of the trial.

“Rather, it will be held in secret. No evidence has been unveiled. And we already know the conclusion: This bogus accusation of espionage will inevitably lead to a bogus conviction for an innocent man who would then face up to 20 years in prison for simply doing his job. And an excellent job he was doing, at that,” Tucker said.

The Kremlin claims to have caught Gershkovich “red-handed” but has otherwise not made any details of his case public.

This month, Russia’s prosecutor general accused him of working for the CIA and “collecting secret information” about tank maker Uralvagonzavod in the Sverdlovsk region where he was arrested.

The United States considers Gershkovich to be “wrongfully detained,” meaning it effectively regards him as a political hostage.

But negotiations to free him through a prisoner exchange have been complicated by the fraught diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow due to the invasion of Ukraine and a litany of other disagreements.

In an interview with U.S. right-wing media personality Tucker Carlson in February, President Vladimir Putin said that he would be open to a prisoner swap involving Gershkovich. 

He indicated that he would like to see Vadim Krasikov, an FSB operative serving a life sentence in Germany for assassinating an exiled former Chechen commander in Berlin in 2019, included in the exchange.

Hours after the trial opened on Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said U.S. officials should still seriously consider the signals that they in Washington received through the relevant channels.

Gershkovich's family has said they are counting on a "very personal" promise from President Joe Biden to bring him home.

“We expect that all parties will work to bring Evan home now,” The Wall Street Journal said in a statement ahead of his trial. “Time is of the essence. As we’ve said, the Russian regime’s smearing of Evan is repugnant and based on calculated and transparent lies. Journalism is not a crime, and Evan’s case is an assault on free press.”

Gershkovich is one of several Americans currently held in Russia on disputed charges in what observers say is part of a strategy of “hostage diplomacy.”

Washington accuses Moscow of arresting its citizens on baseless charges to use them as bargaining chips to secure the release of Russians imprisoned abroad.

Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news agency, was arrested on charges of failing to register as a "foreign agent" while visiting family members last year and now faces up to 10 years on charges of spreading "false information" about the Russian army.

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence on espionage charges he strongly denies, has pushed to be included in a prisoner swap involving Gershkovich.

This month, Ksenia Karelina, a dual U.S.-Russian citizen accused of donating around $50 to a Ukrainian charity, went on trial for treason.

“There is no such legal procedure as a [prisoner] swap. Swaps are a political will of representatives of two states implemented through legal procedures,” Yevgeny Smirnov, a lawyer from the Perviy Otdel human rights project, told The Moscow Times this month.

These exchanges are typically formalized through a presidential pardon, which can only be issued after the sentence enters into legal force, Smirnov said.

“In any case, it will be necessary [for Gershkovich’s case] to go through the original jurisdiction court and wait for the sentence to become final," Smirnov said.

But Russia has the “upper hand” in any exchange, as it holds more potential candidates for prisoner swaps compared to its Western adversaries.

"Several Americans are in Russian prisons, as well as many Europeans, including French and Germans, among others. Meanwhile, there are not many Russian citizens abroad whose return is of interest to the Russian authorities," Smirnov said.

"It's as if Russia has 50 aces while the West has only a couple."

Gershkovich, who grew up in New Jersey with his parents who emigrated from the Soviet Union, was a reporter for The Moscow Times from 2017 to 2020.

He then worked at AFP’s Moscow bureau before joining The Wall Street Journal in January 2022.

Editor's note

Evan Gershkovich worked at The Moscow Times for nearly three years as a reporter. We know he is a professional journalist and not a spy. We join the United States government, The Wall Street Journal and Evan's friends and family in calling for his release.

Here are some ways to support Evan:

Read and share his reporting: You can find Evan’s past reporting for The Moscow Times here. The Wall Street Journal has removed its paywall for his articles and its coverage of his case.

Follow his case: The Moscow Times is closely covering the developments in Evan’s legal case and efforts to negotiate his release. You can find this coverage here.

Write to him: Anyone can write a letter to Evan at FreeGershkovich@gmail.com. It will be translated into Russian, as is required, and mailed to him in prison.

Spread the word: Posting messages in support of Evan on social media helps keep attention on his case. You can use the hashtags #IStandWithEvan and #FreeEvan.

… we have a small favor to ask. As you may have heard, The Moscow Times, an independent news source for over 30 years, has been unjustly branded as a "foreign agent" by the Russian government. This blatant attempt to silence our voice is a direct assault on the integrity of journalism and the values we hold dear.

We, the journalists of The Moscow Times, refuse to be silenced. Our commitment to providing accurate and unbiased reporting on Russia remains unshaken. But we need your help to continue our critical mission.

Your support, no matter how small, makes a world of difference. If you can, please support us monthly starting from just $2. It's quick to set up, and you can be confident that you're making a significant impact every month by supporting open, independent journalism. Thank you.

paiment methods
Not ready to support today?
Remind me later.

Read more