‘Journalism is not a crime’: Joe Biden backs Evan Gershkovich, US journalist jailed in Russia for a year

Joe Biden said he is working “every day” to secure the release of Evan Gershkovich, a jailed Wall Street Journal reporter the US president said is being held by Russia as a “bargaining chip”, as he marked one year behind bars.

Mr Gershkovich, 32, became the first US journalist arrested on spying charges in Russia since the Cold War when he was arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB) last March during a reporting trip in the city of Yekaterinburg.

Despite being a fully accredited journalist, he was accused of spying for the US by the Russian authorities, which he, The Wall Street Journal and the US government vociferously deny.

His plight has sparked global uproar, concerns about collapsing press freedoms in Russia and was even raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby on Thursday who called for the world to pray for him over the Easter weekend.

“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,” Mr Biden said in a statement, vowing to work on the freedom of Evan and other US citizens locked up in Russia.

He added: “We will continue working every day to secure his release.

“We will continue to denounce and impose costs for Russia’s appalling attempts to use Americans as bargaining chips.”

No one knows exactly how many US citizens are being held in Russia. Another American accused of espionage is Paul Whelan, a corporate executive from Michigan who was arrested in 2018. He was sentenced two years later to 16 years in prison, on charges he also denies.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Russia’s actions saying in the last year its already restrictive media landscape has become more oppressive and they were targeting “any form of dissent”. He urged for the immediate release of both men.

“To date, Russia has provided no evidence of wrongdoing for a simple reason: Evan did nothing wrong.  Journalism is not a crime. People are not bargaining chips,’ he added.

One year on from his arrest on a reporting trip Mr Gershkovich has not stood trial, neither have  authorities revealed any details of the accusations or evidence to back up the charges, his friends, families and colleagues say.

Instead he is being held in pre-trial detention in a tiny cell in Lefortovo prison in eastern Moscow, which was extended by another three months on Tuesday. He has already made a dozen or so appearances in court where his incarceration has been endlessly extended.

Holding a huge banner reading “Free Evan” in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the German capital Berlin, the journalist’s close friends said they believed he was being held as a “bargaining chip” by Russia.

“It is unimaginable. Lefortovo prison is designed to break people and cut them off from the outside world.  He spends 23 hours in his cell. It’s amazing he is still strong,” said Francesca Ebel, a close friend and the Russia correspondent for the Washington Post, who told The Independent she communicates with Mr Gershkovich via letters written from his jail cell.

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