US envoy visits WSJ journalist Evan Gershkovich in Russian jail

Ambassador says reporter is ‘in good health and remains strong’ as dozens of countries voice concern over his arrest.

Journalists hold "free Evan" signs
Members of the Independent Association of Publishers' Employees and Wall Street Journal journalists call for the release of Evan Gershkovich on April 12 in Washington, DC, the US [Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP]

Washington, DC – The United States ambassador to Russia has visited detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in a Moscow jail, marking the first consular access granted to the imprisoned US journalist amid calls for his release.

Ambassador Lynne Tracy confirmed on Monday that Gershkovich is “in good health and remains strong”. Her visit comes a week after Washington formally designated Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained”.

“I visited WSJ’s Evan #Gershkovich today at Lefortovo Prison — the first time we’ve been permitted access to him since his wrongful detention more than two weeks ago,” Tracy said in a tweet on Monday.

Russia arrested Gershkovich and accused him of spying late last month, but American officials dismissed the accusations as “ridiculous” early on.

Gershkovich has appealed his detention, and a Russian court is set to hear his case on Tuesday, US media outlets reported.

US officials had been calling on Russia to grant consular access to Gershkovich since his arrest, accusing Moscow of violating international law by not allowing American diplomats to contact him.

Later on Monday, more than 45 countries signed onto a statement expressing concern about Gershkovich’s arrest and calling on Russia to release prisoners held on “​​political grounds”.

The countries — mostly Western nations allied with Washington — also urged Moscow to end what they called “the draconian crackdown on freedom of expression, including against members of the media”.

“We protest Russian efforts to limit and intimidate the media,” the statement said. “Free, independent, and pluralistic media play an indispensable role in informing people around the world.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, welcomed news of Monday’s consular access to Gershkovich. She had previously led efforts to garner support for the journalist.

“We’re absolutely delighted that we have had the opportunity to see him, but we still call for his unconditional release,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “He’s being held unfairly and unjustly, and the Russians need to allow him to return to his family.”

Press freedom groups and the Wall Street Journal have also denounced Gershkovich’s detention, which unfolded as tensions between Washington and Moscow continued to mount amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Advocates say Gershkovich’s arrest is part of Russia’s broader crackdown on media outlets as it pushes forward with the invasion of its neighbour.

But Russian authorities claim that Gershkovich was “caught red-handed and violated the laws of the Russian Federation”. They have not presented evidence to back the charges.

Last week, US President Joe Biden described Gershkovich’s detention as “totally illegal” and held a phone call with his family.

The reporter is now one of two US citizens who Washington says are “wrongfully detained” by Moscow. Paul Whelan, a US Marine veteran, was previously sentenced to 16 years in 2020 on espionage charges that Washington has said are false.

Late last year, Russia released US basketball player Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap that did not include Whelan. Griner was detained on drug charges days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

Source: Al Jazeera