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Gershkovitch to be tried for espionage

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Russian prosecutors say they have approved an indictment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Well, the move means Russian authorities will likely move forward with a trial on espionage charges, charges that both Evan Gershkovich and the U.S. vehemently deny. From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes joins me to discuss the case. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: Help me understand this indictment. This does not sound like good news.

MAYNES: No, it's not good news. In a statement, Russia's prosecutor general's office said it had concluded Evan Gershkovich had been collecting information for the CIA about a Russian tank factory in the Ural Mountains and said that the trial would take place in the region's main city of Yekaterinburg. It's also bad news, of course, given that there's been a lot of chatter and reporting about a possible prisoner exchange between Moscow and Washington. That may yet happen, but today's news would seem to indicate Russian authorities intend to convict first. And I say that because 99% of all cases in Russia do end in conviction. Let's not forget Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in prison for these charges.

KELLY: Just back up and give us the context. How did we get to this moment?

MAYNES: Yeah, sure. You know, Gershkovich was detained by Russian security agents while in a reporting assignment in Russia's Ural Mountains in March of last year and later accused of trying to obtain state secrets. I've already mentioned that Gershkovich vehemently rejects the spying allegations, and here's why. The Journal notes that he was working in Russia with official accreditation from the Russian foreign ministry. In other words, this isn't someone snooping around where he doesn't belong. He was doing his job, talking to Russians about their views during a difficult time in U.S.-Russian relations given the fallout over the war in Ukraine. Now, the Kremlin has insisted its agents caught Gershkovich red-handed. The U.S., in turn, has labeled him wrongfully detained, meaning in their eyes, he's akin to a hostage.

KELLY: Charles, what do we know about how Evan is doing, where he is, how he's holding up physically?

MAYNES: Well, he's been held in Lefortovo prison here in Moscow. It's a czarist-era prison, not known for creature comforts, as you might imagine. Yet Gershkovich's family and friends say he remains strong and in good spirits, with his letters full of what they say is his trademark kind of optimism and humor. Gershkovich has also taken advantage of one of Lefortovo's few benefits. It's a good library - has Russian classics by the likes of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and others. You know, it's not clear what circumstances await him in Yekaterinburg. Either way, there's no sugarcoating life in a Russian prison or a life that's been on hold, away from family and loved ones while all this unfolds.

KELLY: Yeah. And catch us up on where negotiations to try to secure his release stand, I mean, negotiations that some are calling hostage diplomacy.

MAYNES: Well, hostage diplomacy - you know, we know that negotiations have been going on for some time. Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked by Western journalists about Gershkovich. And Putin noted that the U.S. was taking, in his words, energetic steps to secure Evan's release even as he insisted those talks happen out of the public eye. The U.S. Envoy for Hostage Affairs today said much the same.

So we're not privy to all the negotiations, but it's quite clear that Putin wants something or someone in exchange. In fact, in past interviews, he strongly suggested he would be willing to trade Gershkovich for a convicted Russian assassin currently serving a life sentence for murder. The catch is that assassin is serving that life sentence in Germany, not the U.S.

KELLY: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Charles Maynes
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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