Russia says detained US reporter Gershkovich will stand trial over 'CIA work'

By Andrew Osborn

(Reuters) -Russian prosecutors said on Thursday they had sent the case of detained U.S. reporter Evan Gershkovich to court after concluding he had been collecting information for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency about a Russian tank factory.

Gershkovich, 32, was arrested on March 29, 2023, in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on charges of espionage that carry up to 20 years in prison after the FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB, said it had caught him "red-handed" trying to obtain military secrets.

He denies any wrongdoing and his employer, the Wall Street Journal, said in a statement on Thursday after the latest Russian move that he was facing "a false and baseless charge" based on what it called "calculated and transparent lies." President Joe Biden has called his detention "totally illegal".

The Journal spoke out after the office of Russia's General Prosecutor said in a statement it had approved Gershkovich's criminal indictment and that his case would be heard by a court in Yekaterinburg.

It did not say when the case would be heard or whether the trial would be closed to the public as is common in such cases.

"The investigation has established and confirmed with documentary evidence that Gershkovich, an American journalist for The Wall Street Journal, on the instructions of the CIA, collected secret information in the Sverdlovsk region in March 2023 about the activities of the defence plant NPK Uralvagonzavod JSC on the production and repair of military equipment," the prosecutors' statement said.

"Gershkovich carried out the illegal actions using painstaking conspiratorial methods," it added.

Prosecutors did not release any documentary evidence to back the charge.

PRE-TRIAL DETENTION

A joint statement from Almar Latour, his newspaper's publisher, and its editor in chief, Emma Tucker, demanded Gershkovich's immediate release.

"Russia’s latest move toward a sham trial is, while expected, deeply disappointing and still no less outrageous," the statement said.

"Evan has spent 441 days wrongfully detained in a Russian prison for simply doing his job. Evan is a journalist. The Russian regime’s smearing of Evan is repugnant, disgusting and based on calculated and transparent lies."

Latour and Tucker said they now expected the U.S. government to redouble efforts to secure his release.

The first U.S. journalist arrested on spying charges in Russia since the Cold War, Gershkovich is currently being held in pre-trial detention in Moscow and had been the subject of prisoner exchange talks between Moscow and Washington.

The Uralvagonzavod factory, about which he is accused of gathering secret data, has been sanctioned by the West. Based in the city of Nizhny Tagil in the Sverdlovsk region, it plays a crucial role in supplying tanks for Moscow's war in Ukraine, according to the Russian defence ministry.

The factory, which is run by a state conglomerate controlled by one of President Vladimir Putin's allies, has publicly spoken of producing T-90M battle tanks and modernising T-72B3M tanks.

The number of tanks which Russia has lost in battle in Ukraine is a military secret in Russia, which says it has ramped up tank production.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said in February that Russia had lost more than 3,000 tanks - the equivalent of its entire pre-war active inventory - but had enough lower-quality armoured vehicles in storage for years of replacements.

(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Gareth Jones and Daniel Wallis)

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