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American RFE/RL Journalist Marks 100 Days Jailed in Russia

FILE — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, accused of violating Russia's law on foreign agents, talks to her lawyer during a court hearing in Kazan, Russia, Oct. 23, 2023.
FILE — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, accused of violating Russia's law on foreign agents, talks to her lawyer during a court hearing in Kazan, Russia, Oct. 23, 2023.

Alsu Kurmasheva, an American journalist jailed in Russia on charges that press freedom groups say are politically motivated and baseless, marked 100 days in detention on Thursday, as her employer and family renewed calls for her immediate release.

“To be honest, it’s all becoming slowly but surely less bearable,” Kurmasheva wrote in a January 13 letter.

Kurmasheva is a longtime Prague-based editor at the Tatar-Bashkir service of VOA’s sister outlet, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

A dual U.S.-Russian national, Kurmasheva traveled to Russia in May 2023 for a family emergency. Her passports were confiscated when she tried to leave the country in June, and she was waiting for them to be returned when she was detained in October.

Kurmasheva was initially charged with failing to register as a “foreign agent,” but authorities later added additional charges of spreading false information about the Russian army. Kurmasheva and her employer deny the charges against her.

“Even one day unjustly behind bars is a tragedy,” acting RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said, “but a U.S. citizen wrongfully held in a Russian prison for 100 days is outrageous.”

Kurmasheva is being held in pretrial detention until at least February and faces a combined sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

“One hundred days of Alsu’s detention in Russia is 100 days too many,” Kurmasheva’s husband, Pavel Butorin, said in a post on X. “Russia must drop its criminal cases against Alsu and allow her to leave Russia. She needs to come home and hug her children again.”

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

Since Kurmasheva’s jailing, her employer and press freedom groups have called on the U.S. State Department to declare her wrongfully detained, which would open additional resources to help secure her release.

“Alsu Kurmasheva is a victim of Moscow’s war on journalism and its geopolitical disputes with the United States,” Clayton Weimers, executive director of the U.S. bureau of Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement.

“As an American journalist targeted for her work, Kurmasheva deserves nothing less than the full weight of her government working to secure her release,” Weimers added.

Some press freedom analysts have wondered whether Kurmasheva’s status as a dual national is complicating or delaying her potential designation as wrongfully detained, but other analysts told VOA that shouldn’t be a factor.

Wrongful detention determinations are important because they put political jailings on the U.S. government’s radar to drive their response, according to Sarah Moriarty, an international security fellow at the New America think tank.

“It’s important because it calls out these actions for what they are, which is really, at its heart, hostage-taking,” Moriarty told VOA.

Moriarty is the daughter of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who was abducted in Iran in 2007 by Tehran. He is the namesake for the Levinson Act, which established a framework for responding to wrongful detentions of Americans abroad.

A State Department spokesperson on Wednesday said he had no updates on a potential designation for Kurmasheva.

“We are following closely the detention of Alsu Kurmasheva in Russia. We remain incredibly concerned about the extension of her pretrial detention,” spokesperson Vedant Patel said, adding that a request for consular access to the journalist was denied on December 20.

“When it comes to dual nationals who may be detained or arrested, Russia has no legal obligation to inform us of the detention of U.S. citizens who are dual nationals,” Patel continued, saying Moscow had acknowledged her detention to consular officials.

The process of making wrongful detention determinations is unclear, according to Joel Simon, the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative.

“The fact that there’s really no explanation in Alsu’s case is, I would say, not unusual,” said Simon, who also sits on the Center for Strategic and International Studies Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention.

“It’s an opaque and mysterious process, and we don’t really know how these deliberations are carried out,” he said.

The absence of a designation in Kurmasheva’s case could be chalked up to slow-moving bureaucracy, according to Simon, or it may be a tactical decision if officials think not making the designation may better help get Kurmasheva released.

Kurmasheva is one of two American journalists currently jailed in Russia.

Evan Gershkovich, a Russia correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, was jailed in March 2023 on espionage allegations that he, his employer and the U.S. government deny. The State Department has declared Gershkovich wrongfully detained.

Gershkovich earlier this week marked 300 days behind bars. He will remain in pretrial detention until at least the end of January.

The National Press Club in Washington this week also renewed calls for the Kremlin to immediately release Gershkovich and Kurmasheva.

“We continue to demand the Russian government cease its cruel pattern of sweeping up innocent American journalists to serve as high-profile pawns in its quest to gain diplomatic leverage with the U.S. government,” Emily Wilkins, president of the National Press Club, and Gil Klein, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, said in a statement.

“Journalism is not a crime,” they said.

VOA's Nike Ching contributed to this report.