Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is accused of spying, a charge the US dismisses as ‘fiction’.

On the one-year anniversary of Russia’s arrest of American journalist Evan Gershkovich, President Joe Biden has condemned his continued detention and says the United States is working every day to secure his release.

“Journalism is not a crime, and Evan went to Russia to do his job as a reporter – risking his safety to shine the light of truth on Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine,” Biden said in a statement on Friday.

Biden said the US condemns “Russia’s appalling attempts to use Americans as bargaining chips” and promised that he would maintain hope for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter’s freedom.

“We will continue working every day to secure his release. … And we will continue to stand strong against all those who seek to attack the press or target journalists – the pillars of free society,” Biden added.

The 32-year-old journalist and the WSJ have consistently denied allegations that Gershkovich was spying for the US when he was arrested on March 29, 2023 while on assignment in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

Russian authorities have not detailed what, if any, evidence they have to support the charges.

Biden on Friday also promised to secure the release of ex-marine Paul Whelan, who was convicted in 2020 on spying charges that he too denies and who is serving 16 years in a penal colony.

“To Evan, to Paul Whelan, and to all Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad: We are with you. And we will never stop working to bring you home,” Biden’s statement said.

‘Using Americans as pawns’

This week, Russia extended Gershkovich’s pre-trial detention by three months until June 30 as he awaits trial on espionage charges.

The US embassy slammed the decision and accused Russia of “using American citizens as pawns to achieve political ends”.

The US ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, reiterated at Tuesday’s court hearing that “the accusations against Evan are categorically untrue”, calling them “fiction”.

There is “no justification for Evan’s continued detention and no explanation as to why Evan doing his job as a journalist constituted a crime,” Tracy said.

Analysts suggested Moscow could be using jailed US citizens as bargaining chips as US-Russian tensions soar over the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. Gershkovich’s arrest has also been criticised for its effect on other journalists working in Russia.

At least two US citizens arrested in Russia in recent years – including WNBA star Brittney Griner – have been exchanged for Russians jailed in the US. The US attempted to include 52-year-old Whelan in a prisoner exchange in 2022, but those plans fell through.

Gershkovich is the first US reporter to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since September 1986 when Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for US News and World Report, was arrested by the KGB.

Daniloff was released without charge 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission who was arrested by the FBI, also on spying charges.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Gershkovich could be released at some point in exchange for a Russian prisoner held abroad, but no such deal has so far materialised.

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