American RFE/RL reporter marks 6 months jailed in Russia

washington — An American journalist jailed in Russia will mark six months behind bars on Thursday over charges that press freedom groups have condemned as bogus and politically motivated.

Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor at the Tatar-Bashkir Service of VOA’s sister outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested on October 18, 2023, and has been held in pretrial detention since then.

The dual U.S.-Russian national stands accused of failing to register as a “foreign agent” and spreading what Moscow views as false information about the Russian military.

Kurmasheva and her employer reject the charges against her, which carry a combined sentence of 15 years in prison.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy told VOA in an emailed statement that cases of all U.S. citizens detained in Russia have her full attention.

“Six months in, we remain deeply concerned by Alsu’s continued detention,” Tracy said. “We have been outspoken in condemning the Kremlin’s continued attempts to silence, intimidate and punish journalists, civil society voices and ordinary Russians who speak out against the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.”

International press freedom groups have widely called for Kurmasheva’s immediate release.

“The six-month anniversary of Alsu’s detention is important because she shouldn’t have been jailed even for a single day. It’s an absolutely unjust, absurd case with fabricated charges,” said Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ.

“Alsu should be freed from jail immediately and be able to travel back to Prague and see her family,” she told VOA from New York.

Russia’s embassy in Washington did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Emergency visit

Based in Prague, Kurmasheva traveled to Russia in May 2023 for a family emergency. Her passports were confiscated when she tried to leave the country in June, and she was waiting for them to be returned when she was arrested about four months later.

Earlier in April, Kurmasheva’s pretrial detention was again extended, this time until June.

“It’s not a legal process, it’s a political ploy, and Alsu and her family are unjustifiably paying a terrible price. Russia must end this sham and immediately release Alsu without condition,” RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said in a statement about the latest extension.

The Russian government labeled RFE/RL as an “undesirable organization” in February.

At her recent court hearing, Kurmasheva told reporters she was “not very well physically” and that she was receiving “minimal” medical care. The living conditions in the prison “are very bad,” she said, adding that a hole in the floor of her cell functions as the toilet.

That description has press freedom advocates concerned.

“The living conditions are quite bad, and we’re worried about the deterioration of her health,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the Paris-based head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, or RSF.

To date, the Russian government has denied the U.S. Embassy’s requests for consular access to Kurmasheva.

“We are deeply concerned about Alsu Kurmasheva’s detention in Russia,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement. “The charges against Ms. Kurmasheva are another sign of the weakness of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s regime.”

RFE/RL’s parent organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, or USAGM, has also advocated for Kurmasheva’s immediate release.

“Alsu’s time in detention is unlike anything anyone could imagine,” USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett told VOA in an emailed statement. “Russia’s delaying and obfuscating shows this is purely a political stunt to advance the Kremlin’s agenda. She is being treated like a bargaining chip as opposed to a human being.”

First to be targeted

Kurmasheva is the first person to be targeted by Russia for not self-registering as a foreign agent, according to press freedom experts. Her arrest has had a chilling effect on other journalists in Russia who fear they could be targeted next.

“Russian laws, and Russian repressive legislation more specifically, is broad by nature. It’s conceptualized as something intentionally broad and vague,” said Karol Luczka, who leads the International Press Institute’s work on Eastern Europe. He cited Russia’s foreign agent law as an example.

“Most anyone these days in Russia can be considered a foreign agent because of any past activity. So, it’s very significant that they weaponize this legislation, because it shows that even when they have no real charges against anyone, they will always be able to find something,” said Luczka, who is based in Vienna.

For months, press freedom groups have called on the State Department to declare Kurmasheva wrongfully detained, which would open up additional resources to help secure her release.

Earlier this month, Roger Carstens, the U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, told VOA that U.S. officials were still deciding whether to declare Kurmasheva wrongfully detained.

“We’ve been looking at her case very closely. It’s not yet been decided that she’s wrongfully detained,” Carstens said. “But it’s something that we’re still sussing out.”

“The Department of State continuously reviews the circumstances surrounding the detentions of U.S. nationals overseas, including those in Russia, for indicators that they are wrongful,” a State Department spokesperson said in response to a detailed list of questions, in a statement identical to ones previously sent to VOA.

“When making assessments, the department conducts a legal, fact-based review that looks into the totality of the circumstances for each case individually,” the statement said.

Kurmasheva is one of two American journalists jailed in Russia. The second, The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich, has been declared wrongfully detained by the State Department.

That determination came less than two weeks after Russian authorities arrested Gershkovich and accused him of espionage in late March 2023. Like Kurmasheva, the 32-year-old is still being held in pretrial detention.

Gershkovich, his employer and the U.S. government deny the charges against him. The reporter marked one year behind bars last month.

In November 2023, Washington made a prisoner swap offer to the Russian government to secure the release of Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, another U.S. citizen jailed in Russia and declared wrongfully detained. Moscow rejected that offer.

Carstens told reporters earlier this month that the U.S. government was putting together a new offer.

“We are working exceedingly hard and creatively to cobble together that offer,” he said.

Kurmasheva and Gershkovich count themselves among 22 journalists jailed in Russia, according to CPJ data from the end of 2023.

Russia ranks fourth in the world in terms of journalist jailings, but it has the most jailed foreign journalists. Of the 22 journalists imprisoned in Russia, 12 are foreign nationals. Beyond Kurmasheva and Gershkovich, Moscow has jailed 10 Ukrainian reporters, according to the CPJ.

Pressure stepped up

Tracy said Moscow’s repression has only intensified since the Russian army invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

“Authorities have shuttered dozens of outlets using fines and repressive legislation, censored thousands of websites and continue to persecute journalists,” she said. 

“This trend is deeply concerning, and the U.S. will continue to call for respect for Russians’ fundamental freedoms — including freedom of speech — that are guaranteed in Russia’s own constitution.”

One of the main factors that unites the cases of Gershkovich and Kurmasheva is that trials won’t be what ultimately gets them free, according to Said.

“There is no way for their lawyers to prove their innocence through court, because courts are not independent in Russia. Political solutions and diplomatic solutions are the only way to get them free,” she said.

“That’s why it’s important that the U.S. uses all it has to put pressure on the Russian authorities and to get them free,” she said.

Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.

leave a reply: