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In secret Russian trial, American reporter Evan Gershkovich faces years behind bars

There will be no access to the proceedings for either the public or the media.
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom
Posted at 4:42 PM, Jun 25, 2024

Behind closed doors on Wednesday, a secret trial will begin in a Russian courtroom that could decide the fate of American Evan Gershkovich.

There will be no access to the proceedings for either the public or the media, as the Wall Street Journal reporter faces espionage charges — which the newspaper's editor called "bogus accusations."

For more than a year now, family and friends of Gershkovich have only seen him encased inside a glass box in a Russian courtroom. His friends are deeply worried about him.

"It was completely surreal that, you know, my friend — a normal guy — would be the first American journalist arrested in Russia since the Cold War," said Sam Silverman, a longtime friend of Gershkovich.

The two met upon becoming roommates in their freshman year at Bowdoin College in Maine, and they have remained close ever since.

"It was very clear that it wasn't just a job to him," Silverman said of Gershkovich pursuing journalism. "It was a career and even a calling."

It's one that's come at a high price. While he was reporting as an accredited journalist for the Wall Street Journal, in the eastern Russian city of Yekaterinburg in March 2023, Russian authorities arrested Gershkovich, charging him with espionage.

It's a charge that he, the newspaper and the U.S. government deny. The U.S. State Department gave his case the special designation of "wrongfully detained."

"We have been clear from the start that Evan has done nothing wrong," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said during a news briefing on June 13. "He should never have been arrested in the first place; journalism is not a crime. The charges against him are false, and the Russian government knows that they are false. He should be released immediately."

Related story: US reporter Evan Gershkovich, jailed in Russia on espionage charges, to stand trial, officials say

After 15 months behind bars, Russian authorities announced earlier this month that his secret trial would start on June 26.

"This trial is a complete sham," Silverman said. "I mean, the charges are bogus."

Russia has held Gershkovich in isolation for 23 hours a day at the notorious Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, which was previously used for political prisoners during the Soviet era.

"From all accounts, it's a place where they try to break you down mentally and spiritually," Silverman said.

The Wall Street Journal fears they will lose contact with Gershkovich once he is transferred for the trial, and that he could end up in an even harsher prison.

Upon their convictions in Russia, two Americans — basketball player Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan — ended up in penal colonies several hundred miles from Moscow.

A prisoner exchange with the U.S. led to Griner's release. Whelan is in his fourth year of a 16-year sentence of manual labor.

Gershkovich's advocates maintain hope that the U.S. will find a way to bring him home.

"I want him to know that we're okay, we're here, we're united, we're fighting for him," Silverman said, "and that when he gets out, we're going to throw the biggest welcome home party that he could ever imagine or hope for."

Russian officials told international media outlets earlier in June that they are in touch with U.S. officials about a potential prisoner exchange for Gershkovich.

A potential deal for both him and Paul Whelan previously fell through because it also involved Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died while incarcerated in a penal colony.

It's not clear what this new deal would entail, but the Kremlin spokesperson said any negotiations should be conducted "in silence."