Espionage charges against a US reporter arrested in Russia are “ridiculous”, the White House has said.
Wall Street Journal writer Evan Gershkovich was held in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg accused of trying to obtain classified information, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said on Thursday.
Mr Gershkovich, 31, is the first reporter for an American news outlet to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War.
The arrest is also the most serious public move against a foreign journalist by Moscow since Russia invaded Ukraine.
“These espionage charges are ridiculous. The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
She said there was no reason to believe the charges were accurate and that detaining Americans is a tactic Russia has used for a long time.
Ukraine war latest updates: Russia suffers ‘huge casualties’ in ‘slaughter-fest’
Star Wars actor helping warn Ukrainians of airstrikes
How has the Russian economy weathered the West’s sanctions?
Mr Gershkovich, who covers Russia and is based at the paper’s Moscow bureau, could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.
The Wall Street Journal said it was “deeply concerned” for its reporter’s safety.
It said it “vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich”.
“We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” it added.
The FSB, Russia’s top domestic security and counter-intelligence agency, alleged the journalist was gathering information classified as a state secret about a military factory.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Mr Gershkovich was using his journalistic credentials as a cover for “activities that have nothing to do with journalism”.
Mr Gershkovich appeared in a closed session of a Moscow court on Thursday, where he pleaded not guilty to spying.
The court ruled he would be held in pre-trial custody for nearly two months until 29 May, according to a court document.
The Kremlin said it understood Mr Gershkovich had been caught “red-handed” but that other journalists working for the Wall Street Journal could remain in post so long as they were carrying out what it called “normal journalistic activity”.
Mr Gershkovich’s arrest comes amid rising and bitter tensions between Moscow and Washington over the fighting in Ukraine.
The US Embassy in Moscow said it had no immediate comment, but a US diplomatic source told Reuters news agency the embassy had not been informed about the incident and was seeking information from the Russian authorities.
Mr Gershkovich was authorised to work in Russia as a journalist by the Russian foreign ministry, the FSB said.
His last report from Moscow, published earlier this week, focused on the Russian economy’s slowdown amid Western sanctions imposed when Russian troops entered Ukraine last year.
The report, co-written with Georgi Kantchev, was still on the paper’s website on Thursday morning.
Mr Gershkovich is the first American reporter to be arrested on espionage charges in Russia since Nicholas Daniloff in 1986.
Mr Daniloff was released without charges 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission who was arrested by the FBI.
In December, American basketball star Brittney Griner was freed after 10 months behind bars in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
But Moscow has said it is too early to talk about a possible prisoner swap for Mr Gershkovich.
Former US marine Paul Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and Washington have said are baseless.