What to know from the first day of US journalist Evan Gershkovich’s trial in Russia

Here’s a look at what we know about the first day of the trial for Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been charged in Russia with espionage — charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government deny.

Where was the trial he


It was held Wednesday in the Sverdlovsky Regional Court in the city of Yekaterinburg, about 880 miles (1,416 kilometers) east of Moscow. Gershkovich was arrested in the city in March 2023 while on a reporting trip.

What happened in court?

Since the session was closed, it’s uncertain what happened. Journalists and two U.S. consular officials were allowed in the courtroom for a short time before the trial got underway. Gershkovich, 32, appeared with his head shaved, wearing a black-and-blue plaid shirt. Then the court was closed. The session lasted about two hours, with the next hearing scheduled for Aug. 13.

Why was his head shaved?

Also not clear. Some inmates in Russia might have their heads shaved or their hair cut short for sanitary reasons. It has been rarely seen in recent cases.

Why is this case significant?

Gershkovich, the American-born son of immigrants from the USSR, is the first Western journalist arrested on espionage charges in post-Soviet Russia. Russian authorities, without presenting evidence, claimed he was gathering secret information for the U.S. The State Department has declared him “wrongfully detained,” thereby committing the government to assertively seek his release. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, which is almost a certainty since Russian courts convict more than 99% of the defendants who come before them.

What do the Wall Street Journal and the U.S. government say?

Almar Latour, Dow Jones CEO and publisher of the Journal, and Emma Tucker, its top editor, said Gershkovich “faced the Russian regime’s shameful and illegitimate proceedings against him. It’s jarring to see him in yet another courtroom for a sham trial held in secret and based on fabricated accusations.”

They added that his continued “wrongful detention” continues to be “a devastating assault on his freedom and his work and an unfathomable attack on the free press.”

The U.S. government has called for his immediate release. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said earlier this month that the charges have “absolutely zero credibility. Evan has done nothing wrong. He should never have been arrested in the first place.”

Why would Russia seek out American journalists?

Gershkovich’s arrest came about a year after President Vladimir Putin pushed through laws that chilled journalists, criminalizing criticism of Russia’s war in Ukraine and statements seen as discrediting the military. Foreign journalists largely left the country after the laws’ passage, but some have trickled back in. There are concerns about whether Russian authorities would target them as animosity between Moscow and Washington grew.

What about a swap?

Although Russia-U.S. relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War, both countries did work out a swap in 2022 that freed WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was serving a 9 1/2-year sentence for cannabis possession, in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was imprisoned in the U.S.

The countries also traded Marine veteran Trevor Reed, serving nine years in Russia for assaulting a police officer, for Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who’d been serving a 20-year prison sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine.

Putin has alluded to interest in freeing Vadim Krasikov, a Russian imprisoned in Germany for assassinating a Chechen rebel leader in Berlin, but Germany’s willingness to aid Washington is uncertain.

U.S. President Joe Biden may feel an incentive to secure Gershkovich’s release before the November election. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has bristled at attention given to a possible exchange, saying “these contacts must be carried out in total secrecy.”

How soon can we expect a swap?

It is unclear. Russian officials have said an exchange is only possible after a verdict in the trial, but it depends on when Moscow and Washington will be able to reach a deal. Past experiences differ drastically.

Griner was exchanged about four months after a verdict in her trial. Reed was released in a swap 21 months after the verdict. Paul Whelan, an American convicted of espionage in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison, is still waiting.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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