Russia begins espionage trial of reporter Evan Gershkovich in closed hearing condemned by the US

The trial of Evan Gershkovich, the first American journalist to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War, began Wednesday morning in a closed hearing that has been condemned by his newspaper and the United States.

Gershkovich, 32, was arrested while reporting for the Wall Street Journal, which he joined in January 2022, just weeks before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. While many newsrooms subsequently pulled their reporters out of Russia, Gershkovich remained, covering the war and how it was changing life in the country.

The trial is taking place in the city of Yekaterinburg, where he was detained more than a year ago and accused of spying for the CIA. Footage on Wednesday morning showed Gershkovich inside a glass court cage, his head shaved, ahead of the trial.

Gershkovich, the US government, and the WSJ have vehemently denied the charges against him. Within two weeks of his arrest in March 2023, the US State Department designated him as wrongfully detained and called for his immediate release.

The trial of Gershkovich, the American-born son of Soviet-era emigres to the US, has highlighted the extent to which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has harmed relations between Moscow and Washington.

His hearing began at 11 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET) in Sverdlovsk Regional Court in Yekaterinburg. In their indictment, Russian prosecutors said that “under instructions from the CIA” and “using painstaking conspiratorial methods,” Gershkovich “was collecting secret information” about a Russian tank factory.

No reporters, friends, family members, or US embassy staff will be allowed into the courtroom during his trial, which is expected to last months. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

“We’re not holding our breath, it could take weeks or months. And we don’t have much trust in the Russian justice system,” said Sauer, who exchanged letters with Gershkovich before the American reporter was transferred to Yekaterinburg.

“Realistically, we believe that Russia will convict him because they arrested him in the end because he’s a bargaining chip for Moscow, for Putin to be exchanged.”

Ahead of the trial, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the US “certainly” does not expect Gershkovich to have “a free and fair trial given that these are charges that never should have been brought in the first place.”

Miller said embassy personnel were traveling to Yekaterinburg, more than 800 miles from Moscow, and would attempt to attend the trial.

Since his arrest, Gershkovich has been held in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison, spending almost every hour of the day in a small cell as his pre-trial detention period was extended several times. He has passed the time by writing letters to his friends and family, his parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, said in a recent interview with the WSJ.

“He’s managing the best way he can, in a tiny space, one hour walking outside – six steps, six steps, six steps,” Milman said, drawing a small courtyard with her finger. “He’s been exercising, meditating, reading a lot, answering letters. His knowledge of the Russian language and the culture helped him adjust to the situation.”

In a letter to WSJ readers, his family said the past year has been “unimaginable.”

“It has felt like holding our breath. We have been living with a constant ache in our hearts thinking about Evan every moment of every day,” the family wrote.

Political ‘pawns’

After Russian prosecutors approved Gershkovich’s indictment earlier this month, WSJ Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker said he was facing a “false and baseless” charge.

“Russia’s latest move toward a sham trial is, while expected, deeply disappointing and still no less outrageous. Evan has spent 441 days wrongfully detained in a Russian prison for simply doing his job. Evan is a journalist. The Russian regime’s smearing of Evan is repugnant, disgusting and based on calculated and transparent lies. Journalism is not a crime. Evan’s case is an assault on free press,” Tucker said in a statement.

In his State of the Union address in March – with Gershkovich’s parents in the audience – US President Joe Biden said his administration was working “around the clock to bring home Evan” and other “Americans being unjustly detained all around the world.”

The number of Americans being held in Russia has swelled in recent years. Paul Whelan, a former US Marine, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges, which he has consistently and vehemently denied. The US State Department has also declared him wrongfully detained.

Brittney Griner – the basketball star who used to play in Russia during the WNBA offseason – was detained in Russia and sentenced to nine years in prison after authorities found cannabis oil in her luggage.

After spending nearly 300 days behind bars, Griner was freed in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers. A former Soviet military officer, Bout was serving a 25-year sentence in the US on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles and provide material support to a terrorist organization – charges he and the Kremlin denied.

In an interview with American right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested the Kremlin could be willing to free Gershkovich in exchange for Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy organization who was convicted of assassinating a former Chechen fighter in broad daylight in Berlin in 2019.

“Listen, I’ll tell you: sitting in one country, a country that is an ally of the United States, is a man who, for patriotic reasons, eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals,” Putin said.

Asked by the WSJ whether she felt her son is being used as a political pawn, Gershkovich’s mother Ella Milman said “definitely.”

Her husband, Mikhail, said: “We know that he is innocent of what he’s being accused of. He’s a journalist.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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