Evan Gershkovich,WSJ Reporter Detained in Russia, Will Likely Spend Months in Prison


If past cases are a guide, the American reporter accused of being a spy in Russia will likely spend more than a year in a high-security prison in almost complete isolation awaiting the end of a lengthy investigation and trial, according to two Russian lawyers who have worked on similar cases.

The Russian authorities said on Thursday that they had detained Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and accused him of espionage. The Journal and U.S. officials have vehemently denied the allegation that Mr. Gershkovich was spying, and the Russian authorities have provided no evidence for the charge. If convicted, Mr. Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in a Russian penal colony. (Acquittals in espionage cases are virtually unheard-of.)

Mr. Gershkovich, who was detained while on a reporting trip in the city of Yekaterinburg and then transferred to Moscow, where a district court on Thursday formally arrested him until May 29. But according to Ivan Pavlov, a Russian lawyer who has defended Russian clients in a number of espionage and treason cases, the proceedings will likely take much longer — up to two years.

During that time, details of the case will most likely be shrouded from the public, he said.

“I doubt that the investigators will present any evidence,” said Mr. Pavlov, who had to flee Russia in 2021. “Everything will happen behind closed doors.”

Mr. Pavlov is one of Russia’s best-known human rights lawyers, and before going into exile, he frequently represented high-profile defendants in cases involving the Federal Security Service, of F.S.B., a successor to the Soviet K.G.B. that wields enormous influence in Russia.

The Russian state news agency, TASS, reported on Thursday that Mr. Gershkovich’s case was classified and that he was delivered to the Lefortovo prison. Mr. Pavlov said that the journalist will likely stay at Lefortovo throughout the trial.

Lefortovo was used by the K.G.B. as a place to keep Soviet dissidents. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been used by the F.S.B. to isolate opponents of the Kremlin.

Living conditions in the prison are considered above average by Russian prison standards — prisoners typically share a cell with only one person and hot water is available.

Mr. Gershkovich will most likely have access to a prison library and could order books in a Russian online bookstore, Mr. Pavlov said. He will also likely have a television set in the cell, but only with main Russian networks available. And Mr. Gershkovich should be able to receive packages and get letters and postcards, including through the prison service’s website.

But isolation is a real challenge, Mr. Pavlov said, especially since lawyers usually have a chance to see their clients only once every few weeks.

Lawyers have to draw lots to determine who can visit their client in Lefortovo, according to Vladimir A. Zherebenkov, a Russian lawyer who defended Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine sentenced to 16 years in prison in Russia for what the United States considers sham espionage charges.

Mr. Zherebenkov said that investigators have tools at their disposal to exert pressure on Mr. Gershkovich, including by allowing or denying him family visits.

“It’s a form of disciplining — if you say something that we need, we will grant you a visit,” said Mr. Zherebenkov in a phone interview.

The prison is connected with the building of the investigative department of the F.S.B., where Mr. Gershkovich will likely get repeatedly questioned, Mr. Pavlov said. He added that if previous cases are any indication, the investigation could take up to 18 months and the trial could take up to six months. An appeal after that can take another four months, he added.

Court procedures can be expedited if there is a real prospect of a prisoner exchange, however, on Thursday, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, signaled that it was too soon to discuss a swap for Mr. Gershkovich.

“Certain exchanges that took place in the past took place for people who were already serving sentences,” Mr. Ryabkov told reporters, according to the Russian news agency Interfax, adding, “Let’s see how this story will develop.”

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