A Russian-American journalist working for a U.S. government-funded media company has been detained in Russia and charged with failing to register as a “foreign agent,” her employer said Thursday.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty editor Alsu Kurmasheva is the second U.S. journalist to be detained in Russia this year. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested for alleged spying in March.
Kurmasheva, an editor with RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir service, is being held in a temporary detention center, said Tatar-Inform, a state-held news agency in the Tatarstan republic.
The Committee to Protect Journalists media rights organization called the accusations “spurious,” demanding that the charges be dropped and Kurmasheva released.
Tatar-Inform posted video showing Kurmasheva being marched into an administrative building accompanied by four men, two of them wearing balaclavas.
Tatar-Inform said that authorities accused Kurmasheva of collecting information about Russia’s military activities “in order to transmit information to foreign sources,” suggesting that she received information about university teachers who were mobilized into the Russian army.
It said she faces charges of failing to register as a “foreign agent” in her capacity as a person collecting information on Russian military activities. and could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.
“Alsu is a highly respected colleague, devoted wife, and dedicated mother to two children,” RFE/RL head Jeffrey Gedmin said. “She needs to be released, so she can return to her family immediately.”
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it was aware of the reports of Kurmasheva’s arrest. “We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” said an embassy spokesperson who did not give further details.
Kurmasheva, who lives in Prague with her family, was stopped at Kazan International Airport on June 2 after traveling to Russia for a family emergency on May 20, according to RFE/RL.
Officials at the airport confiscated Kurmasheva’s U.S. and Russian passports and she was fined for failing to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities. She was waiting for her passports to be returned when the new charge was filed on Wednesday, RFE/RL said.
“At that time it was clear they did not have anything on her, so maybe it was like a matter of intimidation. And then it took them three months to decide how would they, you know, package the case against her,” Galina Arapova of Russia’s Mass Media Defense Center told The Associated Press.
RFE/RL was told to register by Russian authorities as a foreign agent in 2017. It has brought a case at the European Court of Human Rights challenging Russia’s use of foreign agent laws that resulted in the organization being fined millions of dollars.
Kurmasheva reported on ethnic minority communities in the Tatarstan and Bashkortostan republics in Russia, including projects to protect and preserve the Tatar language and culture despite “increased pressure” on Tatars from Russian authorities, her employer said.
Analysts have pointed out that Moscow may be using jailed Americans as bargaining chips after U.S.-Russia tensions soared when Moscow sent troops into Ukraine. At least two U.S. citizens arrested in Russia in recent years — including WNBA star Brittney Griner — have been exchanged for Russians jailed in the U.S.
Arapova said Kurmasheva’s case is quite different from that of Gershkovic, the Wall Street Journal reporter, even though she holds U.S. citizenship.
“She was attacked because she is a Russian journalist. Second, she belongs to a foreign media, which was already regarded as a foreign agent and with which Russian authorities had a longstanding conflict on foreign agent legislation,” she said.
“Journalism is not a crime, and Kurmasheva’s detention is yet more proof that Russia is determined to stifle independent reporting,” said Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Asia coordinator for New York-based CPJ.
Gershkovich has appeared in court several times since his arrest and unsuccessfully appealed his detention.
Russia’s Federal Security Service alleged Gershkovich, “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.”
Gershkovich and The Wall Street Journal deny the allegations, and the U.S. government has declared him to be wrongfully detained. Russian authorities haven’t detailed any evidence to support the espionage charges. Court proceedings against him are closed, because prosecutors say details of the case are classified.