Russian court rejects appeal to release WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich

President Vladimir Putin says he hopes for agreement with US on prisoner swap but admits ‘it’s not simple’.

This grab from a handout footage provided by the Moscow City Court on December 14, 2023 shows US journalist Evan Gershkovich, arrested on espionage charges, standing inside a defendants' cage a hearing to consider an appeal on his extended pre-trial detention, in Moscow. - A court in Moscow on December 14, 2023 upheld a ruling to hold in detention until January 30 US reporter Evan Gershkovich, arrested in Russia earlier this year on espionage charges. (Photo by Handout / Moscow City Court press service / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / MOSCOW CITY COURT / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Moscow City Court / handout" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS /
US journalist Evan Gershkovich stands inside a defendants' cage in a Moscow court, on December 14, 2023 [Moscow City Court press service/AFP]

An American reporter jailed in Russia must stay behind bars into the new year as he awaits trial on espionage charges, a Russian court has ruled.

Evan Gershkovich, a Moscow correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, has been in jail since March on accusations of spying – charges that he, his employer and the United States government reject.

A Moscow city court on Thursday upheld a November ruling extending Gershkovich’s pre-trial detention to January 30, 2024, as it rejected his appeal to be released.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, at his end-of-year news conference on Thursday, said he hoped an agreement could be reached with the US about a possible prisoner swap for Gershkovich as well as former US marine and security executive Paul Whelan, also jailed on espionage charges.

While Russia had ongoing contacts with the US over the issue, Putin said: “It is not simple, I will not go into details now, but in general, it seems to me that we speak a language that is understandable to each other. I hope we will find a solution. But, I repeat, the American side must hear us and make an appropriate decision, one that suits the Russian side.”

US ambassador Lynne Tracy, speaking outside the court, said: “Evan’s ordeal has now stretched on for over 250 days. His life has been put on hold for over eight months for a crime he didn’t commit.”

“It is not acceptable that Russian authorities have chosen to use him as a political pawn.”

‘Hostage diplomacy’

Gershkovich was detained by Russian authorities on March 29 in the city of Yekaterinburg, some 2,000km (1,243 miles) east of Moscow, and accused of spying, making him the first Western reporter to be held on such charges in Russia since the Soviet era.

Russia’s Federal Security Service claims the reporter was “caught red-handed” trying to obtain secret information about a Russian arms factory. He faces 20 years in prison if convicted.

Gershkovich’s legal team and his supporters have dismissed the charges as baseless – and Russia has not publicly provided evidence.

The US has declared Gershkovich to be “wrongfully detained” and accused Russia of using him for “hostage diplomacy”.

This month, Washington said Russia had rejected a “significant proposal” to release Gershkovich and Whelan.

However, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the setback would not “deter” the US government from “continuing to do everything we can to try and bring both of them home”.

On Tuesday, Sullivan said Gershkovich’s release was a top priority for the White House.

Media crackdown

Gershkovich’s detention has unfolded amid heightened tensions between the US and Russia over the war in Ukraine and what Russia’s critics say is an expansive crackdown on independent media.

The US is also looking into the detention of US-Russian dual citizen Alsu Kurmasheva, who was arrested in the central city of Kazan in October for failing to register as a “foreign agent”.

Kurmasheva’s employer, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), this week denounced the new charges filed against her after reports that she has also been accused of violating rules against Ukraine war criticism.

Russia and the US have agreed to several high-profile prisoner exchanges in recent years, including swapping jailed US women’s basketball star Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in December 2022.

The Russian foreign ministry has said it would consider a swap for Gershkovich only after a verdict in his trial, which could last for more than a year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies