Trial of jailed journalist Evan Gershkovich to be held behind closed doors, Russia court says

US journalist Evan Gershkovich (AFP via Getty Images)
US journalist Evan Gershkovich (AFP via Getty Images)

The trial of jailed US journalist Evan Gershkovich will start in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg later this month behind closed doors, the court has said.

The first American journalist to be detained on spy charges in Russia since the Cold War more than three decades ago, Mr Gershkovich has repeatedly denied the charges and nations including the US and UK have hit out at what they see as politically motivated charges – with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter having just been doing his job. Joe Biden has called his detention “totally illegal”.

Mr Gershkovich has been behind bars since his March 2023 arrest. He could be imprisoned for up to 20 years if convicted.

Russian authorities claim the 32-year-old journalist was “gathering secret information” about Uralvagonzavod, a facility that produces and repairs military equipment, on orders from the CIA.

The trial is to be held on 26 June at the Sverdlovsky Regional Court in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, where he was arrested. He has since been held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, around 870 miles to the west. The court added that the trial will be closed to the public.

Russia’s Federal Security Service alleges that Mr Gershkovich was acting on orders from Washington to collect state secrets but has still provided no evidence.

“Evan has done nothing wrong. He should never have been arrested in the first place. Journalism is not a crime,” US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said last week.

“The charges against him are false. And the Russian government knows that they’re false. He should be released immediately.”

Oleg Kozlovsky, a Russian researcher for Amnesty International, who was himself wrongfully detained in Russia in 2008, believes Mr Gershkovich is likely to face “a really long sentence”.

“As far as I know, there have been no acquittals in espionage cases in many years, and the sentences have been getting harsher and harsher over time,” he said.

“This is basically the modus operandi of the entire law enforcement system in Russia. Whether the person is actually guilty of a crime doesn’t really play a role here.

“I want to be wrong but it is likely that Evan will get a really long sentence regardless of any evidence.”

Vladimir Putin has said he believes a deal could be reached to free Gershkovich (EPA)
Vladimir Putin has said he believes a deal could be reached to free Gershkovich (EPA)

The Biden administration has sought to negotiate Mr Gershkovich’s release but Moscow has said it would consider a prisoner swap only after a trial verdict.

Vladimir Putin has said he believes a deal could be reached to free Mr Gershkovich, hinting he would be open to swapping him for a Russian national imprisoned in Germany. That appeared to be a reference to Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence for the 2019 killing of a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent in Berlin.

The Kremlin claimed on Monday that contacts had taken place with the United States over a possible prisoner exchange involving Mr Gershkovich but that they should remain far from the media. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov quoted Mr Putin’s remarks earlier this month at a meeting with senior international news agency editors, where he said that Russia and the United States were in contact on the issue.

“I want to remind you again of the president’s conversation with the heads of information agencies in St Petersburg – he confirmed that there are such contacts,” Mr Peskov said. “They go on but should continue to be conducted in complete silence... Therefore, no announcements, statements, or information on this matter can be provided.”

When asked why the espionage trial was to be held behind closed doors, Mr Peskov said that he was unable to comment on such matters as it was a decision made by the court.

“This is a court decision. We cannot comment on it,” Mr Peskov said.

The son of Soviet emigres who settled in New Jersey, Mr Gershkovich is fluent in Russian and moved to the country in 2017 to work for The Moscow Times newspaper before being hired by the WSJ in 2022.

US ambassador Lynne Tracy, who regularly visited Mr Gershkovich in prison and attended his court hearings, has called the charges against him “fiction” and said that Russia is “using American citizens as pawns to achieve political ends”.