Russia’s top security agency has arrested an American reporter for the Wall Street Journal on espionage charges, the first time US correspondent to be put behind bars on spying accusations since the Cold War.
The Federal Security Service said Evan Gershkovich was detained in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg while allegedly trying to obtain classified information.
The WSJ said in a statement that it is deeply concerned for Mr Gershkovich’s safety.
It added that it “vehemently denies the allegations” and is seeking Mr Gershkovich’s immediate release, adding: “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “It is not about a suspicion, is it about the fact that he was caught red-handed.”
At a hearing on Thursday, a Moscow court ruled to keep Mr Gershkovich behind bars pending the investigation, according to a statement.
He is the first American reporter to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since September 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for US News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB.
He was released without charge 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission who had been arrested by the FBI.
The FSB, which is the top successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, alleged that Mr Gershkovich “was acting on the US orders to collect information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military industrial complex that constitutes a state secret”.
The agency did not say when the arrest took place. Mr Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.
The arrest comes amid bitter tensions between Moscow and Washington over the fighting in Ukraine.
Mr Gershkovich speaks fluent Russian and had previously worked for the French agency Agence France-Presse and the New York Times. He covers Russia, Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations as a correspondent in the WSJ’s Moscow bureau.
The FSB noted that he had accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist, but ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Mr Gershkovich was using his journalistic credentials as a cover for “activities that have nothing to do with journalism”.
His last report from Moscow, published earlier this week, focused on the Russian economy’s slowdown amid western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine.
Mr Gershkovich’s arrest follows a swap in December in which US basketball star Brittney Griner was freed after 10 months behind bars in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Another American, corporate security executive Paul Whelan, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges which his family and the US government have said are baseless.
Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, said Mr Gershkovich is the first foreign journalist to be arrested in Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine.
“It looks like a retaliation measure of Russia against the United States, so we are very alarmed because it is probably a way to intimidate all western journalists that are trying to investigate aspects of the war on the ground in Russia,” she told the Associated Press.
“The western powers should immediately ask for clarifications on the charges, because as far as we know he was just doing his job as a journalist.”
Russian journalist Dmitry Kolezev said he had spoken to Mr Gershkovich before his trip to Yekaterinburg.
“He was preparing for the usual, albeit rather dangerous in current conditions, journalist work,” Mr Kolezev wrote. He added that Mr Gershkovich had asked him for the contacts of local journalists and officials in the area as he prepared to arrange interviews.