US denounces arrest of former consulate employee in Russia

Robert Shonov is being held for allegedly cooperating ‘on a confidential basis’ with a foreign organisation.

An aerial view of the Lefortovo detention centre, a beige-coloured building surrounded by snow on the ground, in Moscow, Russia.
Russian national Robert Shonov is being held in the Lefortovo detention centre in Moscow, Russia, where Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is likewise held on espionage charges [File: AP Photo]

The United States has “strongly” condemned the detention of a former consulate employee who has been arrested in Russia, according to a local media report.

In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the US Department of State dismissed the allegations against Robert Shonov, a Russian national who worked for more than 25 years in the now-shuttered US consulate in Vladivostok on Russia’s east coast.

“The allegations against Mr Shonov are wholly without merit,” said spokesperson Matthew Miller.

The Russian state media outlet TASS reported on Monday that Shonov had been arrested in Vladivostok and transferred to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, the same detention centre where two US citizens have been held on charges of espionage.

Citing law enforcement sources, TASS explained that Shonov had been interrogated following his arrest. He was ultimately charged with cooperating “on a confidential basis with a foreign state, [or] international or foreign organisation”.

Miller blasted that charge in Tuesday’s statement.

The fact that Shonov was “being targeted under the ‘confidential cooperation’ statute highlights the Russian Federation’s blatant use of increasingly repressive laws against its own citizens,” Miller wrote.

He explained that Russia had issued an order in April 2021 restricting local residents from being employed by the US diplomatic corps. Since then, Shonov had worked for a company “contracted to provide services to US Embassy in Moscow in strict compliance with Russia’s laws and regulations”.

Miller sought to downplay any role Shonov might have had in embassy affairs. “Mr Shonov’s only role at the time of his arrest was to compile media summaries of press items from publicly available Russian media sources,” he said.

Still, members of the Russian government applauded Shonov’s arrest in state media reports.

“It’s clear that unacceptable activities by unfriendly states are not slowing down but rather are going up,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told TASS.

Tuesday’s statement is the latest indication of heightened tensions between Russia and the US, particularly in the wake of the former’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, launched in February 2022.

Earlier this year, the US denounced the detention of US citizen and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, with the State Department declaring he had been “wrongfully detained” by Russian authorities on charges of espionage.

“Journalism is not a crime. We condemn the Kremlin’s continued repression of independent voices in Russia, and its ongoing war against the truth,” State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a statement on April 10.

Gershkovich himself has denied the charges, which include allegations that he was collecting state secrets about Russia’s military-industrial complex.

The US has also urged Russia to free another US citizen, former marine Paul Whelan, who was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years for espionage.

Whelan likewise has rejected the charges against him: In court, he appeared in the defendant’s box carrying a sign that read, “Sham trial!”

Both Whelan and Gershkovich have spent time in Lefortovo prison, a high-security detention facility with a history stretching back to tsarist times. Gershkovich is currently jailed there, and Whelan spent 20 months in the facility awaiting trial.

Last month, US envoy to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield called for the release of both men, saying they were being used as “political bargaining chips“.

“Using people as pawns is a strategy of weakness. These are not the actions of a responsible country. And while Russia plays political games, real people suffer,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

In December, Russia and the US negotiated a prisoner swap that saw the release of imprisoned basketball player Brittney Griner in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian former arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in the US.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies