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Network Calls on State Department to Help Jailed American Journalist

FILE — Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist with Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, poses in an undated photo. (RFE/RL)
FILE — Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist with Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, poses in an undated photo. (RFE/RL)

The head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is calling on the U.S. government to do more to help secure the release of one of the outlet's journalists, who is detained in Russia.

Speaking about Alsu Kurmasheva's case in Washington on Monday, Jeffrey Gedmin, RFE/RL acting president, said the State Department had been "opaque" in how it is responding to the journalist's detention.

Russian authorities detained Kurmasheva in mid-October on charges of failing to register as a "foreign agent." She and her employer reject the accusation.

At the top of RFE/RL's requests is for the State Department to declare Kurmasheva wrongfully detained. The designation would open up additional resources to help secure her release, the network says.

But at a Monday event at the National Press Club in Washington, Gedmin said he doesn't know the status of that potential determination.

"Up until this point, the U.S. government has been conspicuously impartial, and we're looking for any kind of support we can get," Gedmin said. "For us, at this moment, it's really quite opaque."

Request for consular access denied

Like VOA, RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. Congress but is editorially independent.

Gedmin said being funded by Congress hasn't made it any easier to work with Washington on Kurmasheva's case.

"I haven't seen the benefit yet," Gedmin said.

When asked if Kurmasheva will be designated "wrongfully detained," a State Department spokesperson said that it "continuously reviews the circumstances surrounding the detentions of U.S. nationals overseas, including those in Russia, for indicators that they are wrongful."

When making those assessments, "the department conducts a legal, fact-based review that looks at the totality of the circumstances for each case individually," a spokesperson said via email.

The spokesperson added that the request for consular access to Kurmasheva was denied on November 15 and that the State Department is closely monitoring her case.

"We remain deeply concerned about the extension of Kurmasheva's pre-trial detention," the spokesperson added.

Passports confiscated

Based in Prague, Kurmasheva is an editor at RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service. The U.S.-Russian national traveled to Russia in May for a family emergency.

Her passports were confiscated when she tried to leave in June, and she was waiting for those documents to be returned when authorities took her into custody in October.

Russia's Justice Ministry in 2017 declared RFE/RL a foreign agent. More than 30 RFE/RL journalists have since been designated individual foreign agents, but Kurmasheva is not among those.

Kurmasheva's detention has been particularly hard on her family.

"For me, Alsu is not a news story. It's much more than that. It's something that our family lives with every day," her husband, Pavel Butorin, said at the National Press Club.

Butorin is the director of Current Time TV, a Russian-language TV and digital network led by RFE/RL in partnership with VOA.

"Every day, all day long, morning to evening, when I go to bed, when I get up, I have the same thought: 'Am I doing enough for her release?'" Butorin said. "The more noise we make about Alsu's case, the better it is."

Press freedom groups have also called on the U.S. government to declare Kurmasheva wrongfully detained.

"As an American journalist targeted for her work, Kurmasheva deserves nothing less than the full weight of her government working to secure her release," Clayton Weimers, executive director of the U.S. bureau of Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement.

Kurmasheva is one of two American journalists currently jailed in Russia. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been jailed since March on espionage charges that he, his employer and the U.S. government deny.

The State Department has declared Gershkovich wrongfully detained.

"To me, they're both journalists who have been grabbed by the Russians for leverage over the United States," said Paul Beckett, an assistant editor at the Wall Street Journal, who is leading the newspaper's campaign to secure Gershkovich's release.

A Russian court on Tuesday extended Gershkovich's pre-trial detention until January 30, 2024. Originally set to expire in May, Gershkovich's pre-trial detention has been extended three times.

"Evan has now been unjustly imprisoned for nearly 250 days, and every day is a day too long," The Wall Street Journal said in a statement about this latest development.

"The accusations against him are categorically false and his continued imprisonment is a brazen and outrageous attack on a free press, which is critical for a free society. We continue to stand with Evan and call for his immediate release," the statement said.