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Biden Reaffirms Need to Free American Journalist Jailed in Russia

FILE - Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is escorted from the Lefortovsky court after a hearing in Moscow, Jan. 26, 2024.
FILE - Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is escorted from the Lefortovsky court after a hearing in Moscow, Jan. 26, 2024.

During his State of the Union address on Thursday night, U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to secure the release of Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist jailed in Russia for nearly one year on espionage charges that are widely viewed as politically motivated and baseless.

“We will also work around the clock to bring home Evan and Paul, Americans being unjustly detained by the Russians,” Biden said. Paul Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who is also jailed in Russia on spying charges that are viewed as groundless.

Gershkovich’s parents attended the State of the Union address as guests of the speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Johnson.

A Russian correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Gershkovich was detained in March 2023 and has been held in pretrial detention since then on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government vehemently deny. If convicted, he faces 20 years in prison.

“Evan is an American, and he was doing his job as a journalist. He is most importantly a beloved son and brother, and we want him home,” Gershkovich’s parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, recently said, according to the Journal.

Gershkovich will mark one year behind bars on March 29.

With the grim anniversary approaching, Paul Beckett, an assistant editor at the Journal who is charged with leading the newspaper’s campaign to secure Gershkovich’s release, said he hopes this will be the last milestone that his colleague spends jailed.

“We’ve been trying all year to do everything we can to highlight Evan’s case. And it’s just another reminder that we can never do enough,” Beckett told VOA.

Beckett said he hopes that Gershkovich’s parents attending the address as guests of Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, sends the message that press freedom is a bipartisan issue.

“We’re very grateful to Speaker Johnson and to President Biden for what they’re doing to highlight Evan’s case and freedom of the press more broadly. It’s a very bipartisan issue,” Beckett said. “And it just shows, I think, that across both parties, freedom of the press is a high priority.”

Russia’s embassy in Washington did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

“By hosting Evan’s parents, Congress will shine a spotlight on the unjust detention of their son,” Johnson said, according to the Journal. “The United States must always stand for freedom of the press around the world, especially in places like Russia, where it is under assault. The administration must bring Evan home.”

The State Department has also declared Gershkovich wrongfully detained. To date, the Russian government has failed to publish any evidence supporting its claims about the 32-year-old reporter. Gershkovich was accredited with Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

In a February interview with former television talk show host Tucker Carlson, Russian President Vladimir Putin doubled down on the false spy claims about Gershkovich and indicated that the Russian government would trade him for a Russian assassin currently jailed in Germany.

But absent from Biden’s address was a mention of the second American journalist currently jailed in Russia: Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor at the Tatar-Bashkir service of VOA’s sister outlet, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, or RFE/RL.

Kurmasheva, a Prague-based dual U.S.-Russian national, traveled to Russia in May 2023 for a family emergency. When she tried to leave the country in June, her passports were confiscated.

She was waiting for her passports to be returned when she was detained in October 2023 on charges of failing to register as a so-called “foreign agent.” Authorities later added extra charges of spreading false information about the Russian army.

Kurmasheva and her employer deny the charges against her. If convicted, she faces a combined sentence of 15 years in prison.

At an event on Thursday in Washington, Kurmasheva’s husband, Pavel Butorin, emphasized that his wife is being held in poor conditions while in pretrial detention in the southern Russian city of Kazan.

“Her children have been without their mother for more than nine months. It’s been an incredibly difficult time for our family,” Butorin said at the event via video call from Prague.

“We understand what kind of regime we’re dealing with here. But we remain hopeful. And we have no other choice. We want Alsu back,” Butorin added.