Lawyers for US journalist held in Russia on spying charges ‘file appeal’ | Russia

Lawyers for Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal correspondent arrested on espionage charges in Russia, have filed an appeal against the decision to hold him in pre-trial detention, a spokesperson for a Moscow district court has said.

Gershkovich was arrested last week in the city of Ekaterinburg and flown to Moscow, where a court ruled he should be held in detention until at least 29 May. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, in a case that has been widely condemned as tantamount to hostage-taking.

“The court has received an appeal against the ruling on taking Gershkovich into custody as a pretrial restrictive measure,” the press service of Moscow’s Lefortovsky district court told Russian news agency Interfax on Monday.

The Wall Street Journal has vehemently denied the suggestion that Gershkovich could have been involved in espionage, while friends and colleagues have described the charges as absurd.

On Monday evening, a Russian prison monitor published an account of a meeting with Gershkovich, the first news of his condition since he was arrested last Wednesday.

“He was in high spirits and joked a lot,” claimed Andrei Melnikov, part of a prison oversight commission whose members have the right to make visits and check on conditions, in a Telegram post. He said Gershkovich had been able to use the library at the detention facility and was reading Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman.

Melnikov said much of the conversation had involved explaining various rules and regulations of prison life to Gershkovich.

Many Russia watchers suspect the charges against Gershkovich may be one more attempt by the Russian government to stifle all critical voices, as Vladimir Putin’s regime becomes ever more repressive at home while fighting a war in neighbouring Ukraine. Others suggest the move may have been motivated by a desire to have a high-profile prisoner who could then be swapped with people Russia wants to get out of foreign jails.

More than three dozen editors of news outlets across the world, including the Guardian, signed a letter to the Russian ambassador to the United States last week, while a separate letter has been signed by 22 editors from top French publications.

The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said the case would be discussed at a meeting of alliance foreign ministers on Tuesday, and a spokesperson for the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, added to calls from the US president. Joe Biden, for Russia to release Gershkovich.

According to a Wall Street Journal correspondent, a spokesperson for No 10 said: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States who are leading on the efforts to get Mr Gershkovich free.”

Germany’s foreign minister also voiced an appeal to Russia to free Gershkovich on Monday.

“Journalism is not a crime. Russia must release Evan Gershkovich immediately. His arrest is totally unacceptable. Journalists must not become the plaything of perfidious political manoeuvres and the arbitrariness of the Kremlin,” Annalena Baerbock wrote on Twitter.

For all the anger and disbelief abroad, Russian officials were quick to pronounce Gershkovich guilty within hours of his arrest. Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed the journalist had been caught “red-handed”.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, repeated that claim in a call with his US counterpart, Antony Blinken, on Sunday, according to a Russian readout of the call. He also told Blinken that “it is inadmissible for Washington officials and western mass media to stir up hysteria” over the case, the Russian foreign ministry said.

Such signals leave little hope that negotiations or petitioning the Russian government might lead to charges being dropped. Instead, lawyers say Gershkovich’s best chance of a quick release is likely to come from being included in an exchange with the west, possibly for some of the many suspected Russian spies who have been arrested in various countries over the past year.

Late last year, the US agreed to swap basketball player Brittney Griner, jailed in Russia for the possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis, for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer who had spent years in a US jail and whose release Russia has been trying to secure.

On Sunday, Griner and her wife, Cherelle, released a joint statement urging the Biden administration to “to continue to use every tool possible to bring Evan and all wrongfully detained Americans home”.

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