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American reporter Evan Gershkovich arrives in Russian court for secret espionage trial

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(LONDON) — The trial of Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist charged with espionage in Russia, was convened on Wednesday behind closed doors, as U.S. officials accused the Kremlin of using the case “to achieve its political objectives.”

The proceedings in Sverdlovsk Regional Court in Yekaterinburg, a city hundreds of miles from Moscow, will mark the first time prosecutors have laid out their evidence against the Wall Street Journal reporter, who they’ve accused of working for the CIA.

The case against the journalist has been widely denounced by U.S. officials and press-freedom advocates, along with Gershkovich’s editor and publisher.

“When his case comes before a judge this week, it will not be a trial as we understand it, with a presumption of innocence and a search for the truth,” Emma Tucker, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, wrote in an open letter published Tuesday.

Gershkovich was arrested in March 2023 while reporting in the Sverdlovsk region, where Russian officials claimed he was collecting secrets on the “production and repair of military equipment” for the CIA. The indictment against Gershkovich was approved by prosecutors earlier this month, sending the case to the regional court for trial.

The reporter appeared in court on Wednesday with a shaved head, briefly smiling at the gathered photographers from inside the glass cage common for defendants in Russian courtrooms. The press were expected to be asked to leave the courtroom prior to the start of the secret trial.

Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow traveled to the courthouse on Wednesday and were given brief access to Gershkovich before the proceedings began, according to a statement. Russian authorities have failed to provide evidence supporting the charges, the statement said.

“His case is not about evidence, procedural norms, or the rule of law,” the statement said. “It is about the Kremlin using American citizens to achieve its political objectives.”

U.S. officials declared in April 2023 that Gershkovich’s detention was wrongful, accusing Russia at the time of attempting to quiet opposition voices and conducting an “ongoing war against the truth.”

The Kremlin’s efforts to suppress dissent have in the last year become “even more oppressive,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in March, as he marked a year since the journalist’s arrest.

“To date, Russia has provided no evidence of wrongdoing for a simple reason: Evan did nothing wrong,” Blinken said. “Journalism is not a crime.”

Gershkovich and his lawyers attempted to appeal for release several times over the the 15 months, but those appeals were all denied. His pre-trial detention had been extended until June 30.

“They have made false claims about his behavior, about his actions, about associations with the United States government that simply aren’t true,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday in Washington.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear, he wants to trade Gershkovich, most likely as a prison exchange for Russians held in the United States.

Russia and the United States carried out similar high-profile swaps in 2022, when WBNA star Brittney Griner was exchanged for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker, and a former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed, was traded for a pilot convicted of drug smuggling.

Negotiations between Russia and the U.S. continue but so far have not produced a result. A senior Russian official last week claimed Russia had made a proposal to the U.S. but alleged that it appeared for now the U.S. was unwilling to accept it.

The Biden administration has said it considers Gershkovich and the case of another American held in Russia, former Marine Paul Whelan, as top priorities and is continuing to negotiate with Russia for their release.

“Russia should stop using individuals like Evan Gershkovich or Paul Whelan as bargaining chips,” the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said in its Wednesday statement. “They should both be released immediately.”

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