PRAGUE — The husband of detained American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva said his wife was a “political prisoner” and called on the United States to classify her as “wrongfully detained” because she remains behind bars in Russia. accused of failing to register as a foreign agent.
In his first public comments since Kurmasheva’s arrest by Russian security forces on October 18, Pavel Butorin, who like his wife works in the Prague offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said that Russian authorities had not yet granted consular access, a violation of her rights, in a case where she faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Kurmasheva holds Russian and American nationality.
“We are already very grateful for the support we are receiving, but what we need to do is have Alsu designated as a wrongfully detained person. This is a very important designation, the kind that comes of the United States government and the State Department,” Butorin said from the Czech capital, where he runs Current Time, a Russian-language television and digital network run by RFE/RL in partnership with Voice of America.
“There is nothing we want more than Alsou back. My children need her, I need my wife back,” he added.
Kurmasheva, a veteran journalist who has worked for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir service for about 25 years, left Prague in mid-May to attend to a family emergency in her native Tatarstan, one of several republics from Russia.
She was temporarily detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2 at Kazan airport, where her passports and phone were confiscated.
After five months of waiting for a decision in what Butorin called a “ridiculous case,” Kurmasheva was fined 10,000 rubles ($103) for failing to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities .
While awaiting the return of her passports, Kurmasheva was arrested again on October 18 and this time charged with failing to register as a foreign agent, a legal designation that Russia has used since 2012 to label and punish critics of government policy. It has also been increasingly used to silence civil society and media groups in Russia since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Since her arrest, Kurmasheva has had no contact with her family.
“This is something that the Russian Foreign Ministry did to many of our colleagues here at Radio Free Europe, but we never waited for the individuals to self-declare,” Butorin said.
“So they’re making laws on the fly, really, you know, and I don’t even think there’s a mechanism in place to report yourself as a foreign agent. So to me, these accusations are absurd.” , he added.
WATCH: The husband of American journalist Alsou Kurmasheva, detained in Russia, gives his first interview about her situation.
Russia’s detention of Kurmasheva, the second member of a US media outlet to be detained by Moscow this year, has sparked a wave of criticism from human rights organizations and politicians, saying the move signals a new level of wartime censorship.
Russia has been accused of detaining Americans to use as bargaining chips for Russians imprisoned in the United States. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in March on espionage charges — a charge he and the paper vehemently deny.
“We raise our children as free people. For an American child raised in the spirit of personal liberty, freedom of speech and expression, it is so difficult to imagine that his mother was thrown into a cold prison. cell because of something she said on air or published as a journalist,” Butorin said.
RFE/RL Acting President Jeffrey Gedmin rejected the accusations against Kurmasheva, saying she was being persecuted because of her professional work.
Amnesty International, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the United States House of Representatives have called for Kurmasheva’s immediate release.
“This appears to be another case of harassment of American citizens by the Russian government,” US State Department spokesman Matt Miller said after Kurmasheva’s arrest.
The “foreign agents” law allows authorities to label non-profit organizations as “foreign agents” if they receive funding from abroad and are engaged in political activities.
RFE/RL says the law amounts to political censorship intended to prevent journalists from carrying out their professional duties and is challenging the authorities’ measures in Russian courts and at the European Court of Human Rights.
More than 30 RFE/RL employees have been listed as “foreign agents” by the Russian Ministry of Justice, in their personal capacity.
In March, a Moscow court declared RFE/RL’s operations in Russia bankrupt following the company’s refusal to pay several fines totaling more than 1 billion rubles ($14 million) for failing to comply with the law.