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An American journalist will soon go on trial for espionage in Russia

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

An American journalist will soon go on trial in Russia under accusations of espionage. The U.S. says Russia has no legitimate case against Evan Gershkovich, and officials have accused Moscow of holding him as a political pawn. The Wall Street Journal reporter has been held for more than a year. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on efforts to win his release.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Evan Gershkovich was working on a story on Russia's defense industry in the city of Yekaterinburg when he was arrested in March of last year. Now authorities have decided to send him back there to face charges that he was gathering information for the CIA. The Wall Street Journal's publisher and editor-in-chief say this move toward a, quote, "sham trial" is deeply disappointing. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller described the indictment this way.

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MATTHEW MILLER: There's absolutely zero credibility to those charges. We have been clear from the start that Evan has done nothing wrong. 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.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is expecting to lose touch with Gershkovich when he's moved from Lefortovo prison in Moscow back to Yekaterinburg for a trial. He does have one more chance to appeal, and the U.S. is still trying to win his release, according to Roger Carstens, the presidential envoy for hostage affairs, who was testifying on Capitol Hill when the news broke.

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ROGER CARSTENS: The bottom line is that this was not unexpected. I think we were all hopeful that we were able to broker a deal with the Russians before this happened, but it doesn't stop or slow us down. We can keep continuing to pursue not only Evan's freedom but also Paul Whelan's freedom, as well.

KELEMEN: Whelan is a former Marine who the U.S. says has been wrongfully held since December 2018. Whelan was passed over in previous U.S. prisoner swaps with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted that he's open to more such deals, though the Russians may be waiting for a verdict in Gershkovich's case.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: "The American administration is taking energetic steps to secure his release," Putin told reporters last week, saying these kinds of issues can't be solved in public in the media.

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PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: "They need a discrete, calm professional approach and dialogue between intelligence agencies," Putin said, adding that they should be decided only on the basis of reciprocity. He's made no secret that he wants the U.S. to get Germany to release a Russian hitman now serving a life sentence on murder charges in Berlin. U.S. officials haven't publicly commented on that. The only thing that spokesman Miller will say is that the U.S. put a substantial deal on the table that Russia has so far rejected.

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MILLER: We don't talk about all the details of that publicly. This has always been the case, but it is one of the secretary's and the president's highest priorities.

KELEMEN: Russia is holding other Americans, too, including a dual national who works for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Alsu Kurmasheva was arrested a year ago while visiting her ailing mother in the city of Kazan. She's now accused of spreading false information about Russia's war in Ukraine. U.S. consular officials have not been able to visit her. The hostage affairs envoy says he's looking into that case. There's a U.S. travel warning urging Americans not to go to Russia because of the risk of being detained arbitrarily.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIBRAN ALCOCER'S "IDEA 10") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.