A Russian court extends the pretrial detention for an American reporter accused of spying

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Moscow City Court

In this photo released by the Moscow's City Court, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court, in Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. (Moscow City Court via AP)

MOSCOW – A court in the Russian capital ruled Tuesday to keep Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in custody pending his trial on espionage charges that he denies.

The Moscow City Court rejected an appeal against Gershkovich's detention filed by his lawyers, upholding an earlier ruling to keep him behind bars until the end of March.

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That means Gershkovich, 32, will spend at least a year behind bars in Russia after his arrest in March 2023 while on a reporting trip to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains.

Gershkovich and the Journal have denied the espionage allegations, and the U.S. government has declared him to be wrongfully detained. Russian authorities haven’t detailed any evidence to support the charges.

In December, the U.S. State Department said that Russia had rejected several proposals for freeing Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan who has been jailed in Russia since his December 2018 arrest on espionage-related charges that both he and the U.S. government dispute. Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Tuesday that “we’re disappointed but not surprised by the outcome of the hearing” that upheld Gershkovich's detention. He reaffirmed that Washington sees the charges against Gershkovich as baseless and urged Russia to release Gershkovich and Whelan, adding that the U.S. will keep working to secure their freedom.

Speaking in an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia is ready to negotiate a deal to exchange Gershkovich and hinted that Moscow wants the release of a Russian imprisoned in Germany.

Putin charged that Gershkovich “was caught red-handed when he was secretly getting classified information,” while adding that "there are certain conditions that are being discussed between special services. I believe an agreement can be reached.”

He pointed to a man imprisoned in a “U.S.-allied country” for “liquidating a bandit” who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers during separatist fighting in Chechnya. Putin didn’t mention names but appeared to refer to Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a life sentence in Germany after being convicted of the 2019 killing in Berlin of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity.

German judges said Krasikov acted on the orders of Russian authorities, who gave him a false identity and passport and resources to carry out the killing.

German officials have refused to comment when asked if there had been any effort by Russia to secure a swap of Krasikov and Gershkovich.

Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be charged with espionage in Russia since 1986, when Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB. Gershkovich is being held at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, notorious for its harsh conditions.

Also Tuesday, the Justice Ministry named the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as an “undesirable” organization, a label that carries a prison term for those working for it.

RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said in a statement that "this attempt to stifle us will only make RFE/RL work harder to bring free and independent journalism to the Russian people.”

Commenting on the Russian move, Miller, the State Department spokesman, said that “we’ve seen Russia continue to crack down on free press, continue to crack down on transparency."

"It is quite clear that they do not want their people to have information about what the Russian regime does abroad but also what the Russian regime does to its own people,” he said.

In October, Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir service, was taken into custody on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent while collecting information about the Russian military. Kurmasheva, who holds U.S. and Russian citizenship and lives in Prague, is in jail pending trial and also has been charged with spreading “false information” about the Russian military.

RFE/RL was told by Russian authorities in 2017 to register as a foreign agent, but it has challenged Moscow’s use of foreign agent laws in the European Court of Human Rights. The organization has been fined millions of dollars by Russia.

Meanwhile, the Federal Security Service, Russia's main domestic intelligence agency, on Tuesday reported the arrest of a 33-year-old woman with U.S. and Russian citizenship on charges of treason. The FSB said the woman it didn't name was accused of collecting money for the Ukrainian military.

The independent news outlet Mediazona identified the woman as Ksenia Karelina and said that she had received U.S. citizenship after marrying an American.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the White House and the State Department were aware of reports of the arrest of a dual U.S.-Russia citizen and added that “we are trying to get more information and to secure some consular access to that individual.”

Kirby refrained from further comment due to respect for privacy, but reiterated “our very strong warnings about the danger posed to U.S. citizens inside Russia.” He added: "If you’re a U.S. citizen, including a dual national residing in or traveling in Russia, you ought to leave right now.”

Miller noted that when it comes to dual citizens of the United States and Russia, Moscow "does not recognize dual citizenship, it considers them to be Russian citizens first and foremost,” giving U.S. diplomats a difficult time to get consular assistance.

Some analysts have noted that Moscow may be using jailed Americans as bargaining chips after U.S.-Russian tensions soared when Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At least two U.S. citizens arrested in Russia in recent years, including WNBA star Brittney Griner, have been exchanged for Russians jailed in the U.S.

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AP writers Zeke Miller and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.