White House: Russian spying charges against US reporter "ridiculous"
The White House dismissed espionage charges against a Wall Street Journal reporter detained by Russia as ridiculous on Thursday and said there was no reason to believe the charges are accurate.
Russia said on Thursday that it would grant the United States consular access to detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was remanded in custody earlier, accused of spying.
The US State Department is in direct contact with the Russian government over his detention.
A Moscow court ruled that a US journalist for the Wall Street Journal newspaper should be detained for nearly two months on suspicion of spying for Washington, the most serious move against a foreign journalist since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Russia's FSB security service said earlier on Thursday it had opened a criminal case against US national Gershkovich on suspicion of espionage and the Kremlin said he had been "caught red-handed."
Gershkovich, who has been working for the Journal for just over a year, told the court he was not guilty. His employer said the case against him, believed to be the first criminal case for espionage against a foreign journalist in post-Soviet Russia, was based on a false allegation.
The newspaper denied the allegations and demanded the immediate release of "trusted and dedicated reporter" Gershkovich. " We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family," the newspaper said.
Espionage under Russian law can be punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
Russian court holds 'quick' closed hearing for WSJ reporter held for spying - lawyer
Gershkovich, a 31-year-old who has worked in Russia as a journalist for six years, is the highest-profile American arrested there since basketball star Brittney Griner, who was freed in December after 10 months in jail on drugs charges.
The FSB said it arrested Gershkovich in the Urals industrial city of Yekaterinburg, "suspected of spying in the interests of the American government" by collecting information on "one of the enterprises of Russia's military-industrial complex", which it did not identify.
He was brought to Moscow, where a court at a closed hearing ordered him held in pre-trial detention until May 29. Russian court holds 'quick' closed hearing for US reporter held for spying, said lawyer Daniil Berman. The TASS state news agency said he pleaded not guilty. The authorities released no evidence publicly, and TASS said the case had been marked "top secret".
Berman, a lawyer representing the reporter, was not permitted inside the courtroom or allowed to see the charges, Berman told reporters outside. He believed Gershkovich would be taken to Lefortovo, the 19th-Century central Moscow jail notorious in Soviet times for holding political prisoners.
"They held a quick hearing. I don't know how long it lasted - three minutes, 15 minutes, I don't know," Berman told reporters.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he believed Gershkovich had been "caught red-handed". Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said it was too early to talk of any possible prisoner swap with the United States, saying that such deals are typically arranged only after a prisoner is convicted.
The US State Department's travel guidance, last updated in February this year, advises US citizens not to go to Russia because of the danger of arbitrary arrest, and says those living or travelling there should depart immediately.
In addition to escalating Moscow's diplomatic conflict with the United States, the case could further isolate Russia by frightening away more of the few foreign journalists still working there.
The arrest was "a frontal attack on all foreign correspondents who still work in Russia. And it means that the FSB is off the leash", wrote Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist outside the country who specialises in the security services.
Moscow has effectively outlawed all independent Russian news outlets since it sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine but has continued to accredit some foreign reporters. Journalism has become sharply limited by laws that impose long sentences for any public criticism of what Russia refers to as its "special military operation".