top of page

‘Sham’ trial of US journalist Gershkovich begins in Russia

By Liam Scott

June 27, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

WASHINGTON — With his head recently shaven, American journalist Evan Gershkovich appeared briefly in photos taken before his closed-door trial began on Wednesday in Russia, nearly 15 months after he was jailed on espionage charges that are widely viewed as baseless and politically motivated.

A correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich was detained in March 2023 on spying charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government vehemently deny. The State Department has also declared Gershkovich wrongfully detained.

Press freedom experts have said that they expect the trial against Gershkovich to be a politically motivated sham.

“It’s certainly a sham trial. It’s a travesty of justice. The charges brought against him are spurious and unsubstantiated, and the whole thing is just a masquerade,” Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, told VOA.

The trial is taking place in Yekaterinburg, where Gershkovich, 32, was first detained. The Ural Mountains city is about 1,400 kilometers, or 870 miles, east of Moscow.

Russian authorities have accused Gershkovich of “gathering secret information” about a Russian tank manufacturer. But to date, Moscow has not publicly provided any evidence to substantiate the charges against Gershkovich, who was accredited by Russia’s foreign ministry to work in the country.

Russia’s Washington embassy did not immediately reply to a VOA email requesting comment.

Secret trials are common practice in Russia for cases of alleged treason or espionage involving classified state material. But that means it will be difficult for observers and watchdogs to monitor the trial, according to Paul Beckett, an assistant editor at The Journal who is leading the newspaper’s campaign to secure Gershkovich’s release.

“I don’t have high hopes that we will be able to see much, if anything, that’s happening there. And I think that just speaks to the opacity of the whole system and its arbitrariness,” Beckett told VOA.

It is not clear how long the trial will take, but based on similar past cases, CPJ’s Said believes it will last a few months. She added that the trial is likely intended to foster a facade of rule of law in Russia.

U.S. embassy officials were present at the courthouse and given brief access before the proceedings began, the diplomatic mission in Moscow said in a statement on Wednesday.

According to the court, the next hearing has been scheduled for August 13, Daniel Kanigan, the spokesperson of the U.S. embassy, told VOA.

Kanigan told VOA on Tuesday that the embassy “will make efforts to attend any future proceedings.”

“Journalism is not a crime. Evan should not have been detained and both he and Paul Whelan should be released,” Kanigan added in the email.

Whelan is a former Marine who is serving a 16-year spying sentence in Russia. The State Department has also declared him wrongfully detained.

If convicted, Gershkovich faces up to 20 years behind bars.

Some press freedom experts believe a conviction — regardless of its illegitimacy — is a necessary yet imperfect step to eventually securing Gershkovich’s release through a prisoner swap.

“They’re trying to kill two birds with one stone. One is to silence Evan,” Said told VOA. “The second goal is, obviously, to get him exchanged for someone who is important for the Kremlin and for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

Putin has previously indicated that the Kremlin would be willing to trade Gershkovich for a convicted killer jailed in Germany. Prisoner swap negotiations between Moscow and Washington have been taking place for months.

Although Beckett said a conviction is likely, he added that he hopes the U.S. government can find a way to “short-circuit” the trial process and secure Gershkovich’s release as soon as possible.

“It’s high time that the U.S. government reached a settlement with Russia over how to get Evan, and other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia, back home and back to their families,” said Beckett, who is based in Washington.

In a Wednesday statement, Gershkovich’s family also urged the U.S. government to do everything it can to secure the reporter's release.

“These past 15 months have been extraordinarily painful for Evan and for our family. We miss our son and just want him home,” they said in the statement. “We’re deeply disappointed that he will have to endure further attempts to discredit him and to paint a picture that is unrecognizable to anyone who knows him.”

Gershkovich’s case underscores the poor state of press freedom in Russia, according to media experts. At the end of 2023, the CPJ in New York documented the jailings of 22 journalists in Russia, including 12 foreign nationals.

“The Kremlin has clamped down severely on independent reporting, effectively turning journalism into a crime,” The Journal’s editor-in-chief, Emma Tucker, wrote in a Tuesday open letter on Gershkovich’s trial.

Gershkovich is one of two American journalists currently jailed in Russia.

Alsu Kurmasheva, a U.S.-Russian national who works at VOA’s sister outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague, has been jailed since October 2023 on charges of failing to self-register as a “foreign agent” and spreading what the Kremlin views as false information about the Russian army.

Kurmasheva, 47, rejects the charges, which carry a combined sentence of 15 years in prison. The U.S. government has also called for her immediate release.



bottom of page