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Pray this Easter for journalist Evan Gershkovich jailed in Russia, Archbishop of Canterbury says

Marking one year since the Wall Street Journal reporter was falsely detained, Justin Welby says: ‘Journalists around the world should be protected, free to hold people and power to account without fear of reprisal’

Chris Stevenson
Friday 29 March 2024 08:17 GMT
Russia extends arrest of US reporter Evan Gershkovich

The Archbishop of Canterbury has called on people to pray over Easter for Evan Gershkovich, the journalist from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) who has been held in a Russian jail for a year on false espionage charges.

Mr Gershkovich, 32, became the first US journalist arrested on spying charges in Russia since the Cold War when he was detained by the Federal Security Service (FSB) on 29 March 2023 during a reporting trip in the city of Yekaterinburg.

The reporter, the WSJ and the US government all deny Mr Gershkovich is a spy and insist that he has been falsely imprisoned. He has had his pre-trial detention extended five times, the latest in a court hearing earlier this week that added three months, until at least 30 June. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

In a call to defend “press freedom around the world”, the Most Rev Justin Welby shared a message on social media in which he said: “After being arrested in Russia one year ago, Evan is still in pre-trial detention, confined to a small cell – with his detention having recently been extended.

“This Easter, let us pray for the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich... We pray for Evan, his family and his colleagues.”

The archbishop added that Good Friday would mark a year of milestones that Mr Gershkovich had been forced to miss including “his 32nd birthday, weddings, holidays and the chance to do the work he loves”.

In the wake of the decision to extend Mr Gershkovich’s detention again, the US ambassador Lynne Tracy demanded that Russia free him and said Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin were using him and other American citizens as pawns.

“This verdict to further prolong Evan’s detention feels particularly painful, as this week marks one year since Evan was arrested and wrongfully detained in Yekaterinburg simply for doing his job as a journalist,” Ms Tracy said.

The WSJ has said in a statement: “Evan was detained by Russia’s Federal Security Service in the city of Yekaterinburg while on a reporting assignment in the country. He had full press credentials from Russia’s foreign ministry.”

The US ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, outside court in Moscow (AFP via Getty)

Mr Gershkovich has spent a year in Moscow’s high-security Lefortovo prison, which is closely associated with the FSB. The Russian security services have provided no evidence for their accusation that the journalist was acting on US orders to collect state secrets during his reporting trip.

Mr Gershkovich’s dozen or so appearances in Moscow courts over the last 12 months have fallen into a familiar pattern. He is led in handcuffs into a defendant’s cage or box in front of judge. The proceedings are always closed. His appeals are always rejected, and his time behind bars is always extended. Then it’s back to Lefortovo prison.

The hearings are the chance for Mr Gershkovich’s family, friends and US officials to get a glimpse of him. “It’s always a mixed feeling. I’m happy to see him and that he’s doing well, but it’s a reminder that he is not with us. We want him at home,” Mr Gershkovich’s mother, Ella Milman, told The Associated Press.

While he is often seen smiling, his family have said he finds it hard to face the wall of cameras that mark every appearance.

Evan Gershkovich being taken back to Lefortovo prison (AFP via Getty)

Mr Gershkovich is not allowed phone calls and wakes up “every morning to the same gray prison wall... to think that he’s been doing that every day for the past year is just horrible”, his friend, Polina Ivanova of The Financial Times told the AP.

He’s allowed out of his cell for an hour a day to exercise. He spends the rest of his time largely reading books in English and Russian and writing letters to friends and family who try to make sure he stays up to date with current affairs. He also tries to follow his favourite football team, Arsenal, although the scores of their matches are often delayed by a couple of weeks.

Joe Biden’s administration is seeking the release of Mr Gershkovich. Russia’s foreign ministry has said it would consider a prisoner swap – but only after a verdict in his trial, which has not yet begun.

Ms Tracy called the charges the journalist faces “fiction” and added that Russia is “using American citizens as pawns to achieve political ends”.

In his message, the Archbishop of Canterbury shared a link to the WSJ’s coverage of Mr Gershkovich’s detention, but also extended his call to the hundreds of journalists currently held in prison around the world for doing their jobs.

“Journalists around the world should be protected, free to hold people and power to account without fear of reprisal,” he said. “We pray for those hundreds of journalists currently in prison for carrying out this vital work”.

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