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“Every day is hard”: one year since Russia imprisoned an American journalist

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A year ago Friday, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich received a chilling phone call from the editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal. Their son, Evan, a Journal foreign correspondent who was on a reporting assignment in Russia, had missed his daily security check.

“We were hoping it was some kind of mistake, that everything would be OK,” the older Mr. Gershkovich recalled. But the astonishing reality has become clear: the Russian authorities had arrested Evan and accused him of spying for the U.S. government, making him the first American journalist to be detained on espionage charges in Russia since the end of the Cold War.

Since his arrest, Mr. Gershkovich, 32, has been held in Moscow’s notorious high-security Lefortovo prison, the same facility where those accused of the deadly attack at a city concert hall this month are being held. -this. The Journal and the U.S. government have vehemently denied that Mr. Gershkovich is a spy, saying he was an accredited journalist doing his job.

On Tuesday, Mr. Gershkovich’s detention was extended for another three months. No trial date has been set.

“Every day is very hard – every day we feel he is not here,” Ms Milman said. “We want him home, and it’s been a year. This had harmful consequences.

Roger Carstens, the Biden administration’s special envoy for hostage affairs, said the US government had made “intensive efforts” to secure the release of Mr Gershkovich, as well as that of another detained American, Paul Whelan, a Marine veteran who is also accused of espionage.

“Journalism is not a crime,” Mr. Carstens said in a statement. “Evan Gershkovich was doing his job and should not have been arrested by Russia.”

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s recent public comments about a possible prisoner exchange could be a reason for some optimism, said Jay Conti, general counsel at Dow Jones, the Journal’s parent company.

In an interview last month with Tucker Carlson, a former Fox News host, Mr. Putin suggested that he wanted to trade Mr. Gershkovich for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian citizen imprisoned in Germany for assassinating a target in a park. Berlin.

Early discussions between U.S. and German officials focused on whether Berlin would be willing to let the assassin go if Russia released opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny in addition to Mr. Gershkovich and Mr. Whelan. But Mr. Navalny died in mysterious circumstances in an Arctic prison last month, derailing that possibility.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that there aren’t many high-profile Russians in U.S. custody, which makes any potential deal even more complicated,” Mr. Conti said. “I think the U.S. government has been active in its efforts to try to bring Evan home, but obviously you need a willing partner and you need to make a deal to make that happen.”

In prison, Mr. Gershkovich slowly played chess with his father through mail and worked his way through book recommendations from friends, his parents said. He also tracks people’s birthdays and milestones, arranging through others to send flowers, including to his mother and sister on International Women’s Day this month- this.

“It’s a very small place, very isolated, with a small window and very little time outside,” his father said of his son’s cell. “We know it takes a lot of courage, effort and strength to stay together, exercise, meditate, read books, write letters, encourage each other to stay strong and hope for the best. »

Mr. Gershkovich exchanges letters every week with his family, as well as friends and correspondents around the world. A group of his friends organized a website where people can submit letters, which will be translated into Russian, as required by law, and sent to Mr. Gershkovich, who is delighted to receive them, his mother said.

” He’s fighting. He keeps his spirits up,” Ms. Milman said.

Mr. Gershkovich grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of Jewish immigrants who fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s. His parents said he was curious about his Russian heritage from an early age and that he spoke Russian at home. He was also interested in people and later studied philosophy and English at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he graduated in 2014. Journalism seemed like a perfect fit for him.

After nearly two years as a news assistant at The New York Times, Mr. Gershkovich moved to Russia in late 2017 to work as a reporter for The Moscow Times. He worked at Agence France-Presse before joining Le Journal in January 2022, a job that his parents said they loved.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Mr. Gershkovich left Moscow, along with most foreign journalists, to settle in London. But he frequently returned to Russia for reporting trips.

The Wall Street Journal worked hard to keep Mr. Gershkovich’s plight in the headlines, said Emma Tucker, the editor-in-chief. The newsroom displays a large photo of him and his colleagues wearing “Free Evan” pins. The Journal’s homepage features updates on Mr. Gershkovich’s case, and the company has organized letter-writing campaigns, social media storms and even a 24-hour read-through of Mr.’s reporting. Gershkovich.

“We need to keep the pressure on,” Ms Tucker said. “We refuse to give up.”

His arrest marked a particularly chilling moment in Mr. Putin’s crackdown on independent media and dissent. While hundreds of independent Russian journalists have been driven out of the country, Mr. Putin has not previously imprisoned any Western journalists on charges that could land them in prison.

Russian authorities arrested Mr. Whelan in 2018, accusing him of espionage, charges he and the U.S. government deny. In early 2022, Russian authorities arrested basketball player Brittney Griner, accusing her of drug trafficking. They then exchanged her for a convicted arms trafficker, Viktor Bout, whose repatriation they had been demanding for years from a US prison.

Ms. Griner’s release at the end of 2022 and the imbalance of the exchange — a basketball player caught with hash oil for an arms dealer — have raised fears that Mr. Putin will target other Americans, realizing they could be used as leverage to obtain high prices. -dangerous and profile Russians taken in the West.

Mr. Gershkovich’s arrest took place a few months later. This has had broad implications for media coverage of Russia, as many major newsrooms have pulled their journalists out of the country and reassessed the risks of reporting in the region. Another journalist, Alsou Kurmasheva, an American-Russian national working for the US-funded television station Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested in October while traveling to Russia to visit her mother . She was charged with failing to register as a foreign agent and remains in detention.

Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in an interview that journalists in Russia now know they are “under constant risk.”

“Before Evan’s case, foreign correspondents who could be seen as overly critical of Russian policies were denied extensions of their visas or accreditation,” Ms. Said said. “It has become clear that the Russian authorities will stop at nothing in their crackdown on independent media.”

Mr. Gershkovich’s parents said they had devoted their time to keeping the Biden administration focused on him, meeting with President Biden, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the security adviser. nationality of Mr. Biden. They traveled to Davos, Switzerland, this year for the World Economic Forum, and were invited to Mr. Biden’s State of the Union address on March 7, when the president said the United States worked “around the clock” to bring Mr. Gershkovich home.

“We know they are committed and President Biden is committed, but we would like to see a resolution as quickly as possible,” Ms. Milman said.

A trial date is expected to be set for Mr. Gershkovich in the coming months, said Mr. Conti, general counsel for Dow Jones. A trial would be held behind closed doors, with little transparency in the process.

In the meantime, Mr. Gershkovich’s parents said, they continue to hope for his release.

“We have to be optimistic to continue,” his father said. “We have no other skills to deal with this.”

Paul Sonne reports contributed.

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