The White House says espionage charges against an American journalist arrested in Russia are “absurd.”
Wall Street Journal writer Evan Gershkovich, hero of the Ural city of Yekaterinburg, is accused of trying to obtain classified information, Russian The Federal Security Service (FSB) said on Thursday.
Mr. Gershkovich, 31, is the first American news media reporter to be arrested in Russia on espionage charges since the Cold War.
The arrest is also Moscow’s toughest public action against foreign journalists since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“These espionage allegations are absurd. The Russian government’s targeting of American citizens is unacceptable,” White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said.
She said there was no reason to believe the allegations were accurate and that detaining Americans was a long-standing Russian tactic.
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Mr Gershkovich, who covers Russia and is based in the paper’s Moscow bureau, could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.
The Wall Street Journal said it was “deeply concerned” about the safety of its reporters.
It said it “strongly denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated journalist Evan Gershkovich”.
“Our thoughts are with Evan and his family,” it added.
Russia’s top domestic security and counterintelligence agency, the FSB, said the journalist was gathering information classified as a state secret about an arms factory.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Mr Gershkovich was using his journalistic credentials as a cover for “activities unrelated to journalism”.
Appearing in closed session in a Moscow court on Thursday, Mr Gershkovich pleaded not guilty to espionage.
The court ruled that he will be held in pretrial detention for nearly two months until May 29, according to a court document.
The Kremlin said it understood Mr Gershkovich was caught “on the spot”, but that other journalists working for the Journal could remain on the job as long as they carried out what it called “normal journalistic activity”.
Gershkovich’s arrest comes as tensions rise between Moscow, Washington over Russia’s civil war Ukraine.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow said it had no immediate comment, but a U.S. diplomatic source told Reuters it had not been briefed on the matter and was seeking information from Russian authorities.
The FSB said Mr Gershkovich had been authorized by the Russian foreign ministry to work as a journalist in Russia.
His final report, delivered in Moscow earlier this week, focused on a slowdown in Russia’s economy amid Western sanctions imposed when Russian troops moved into Ukraine last year.
The report, co-authored with Georgi Kantchev, remained on the newspaper’s website Thursday morning.
Mr. Gershkovich is the first American journalist to be arrested in Russia on espionage charges since Nicholas Daniloff in 1986.
20 days later, Mr. Daniloff was released without charge in exchange for an employee of the Soviet mission to the United Nations who was arrested by the FBI.
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But Moscow said it was too early to talk about a possible prisoner swap for Mr Gershkovich.
Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and Washington say are baseless.