MOSCOW: An American journalist Evan Gershkovich has been detained on suspicion of spying for Washington, Russia said Thursday, drawing immediate condemnation from the West and calls for the Wall Street Journal reporter's release.
Evan Gershkovich, 31, is believed to be the first foreign journalist to be detained on suspicion of spying in post-Soviet Russia, and his arrest is a serious escalation in the Kremlin's sweeping crackdown on the media.
The Wall Street Journal said it was deeply concerned for Gershkovich's safety and vehemently denied the claim from the FSB security service that he was "spying in the interests of the American government".
His detention, on charges that carry a maximum penalty of 20 years behind bars, sparked an outcry from the West and press freedom groups.
French foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said Paris was "particularly worried" and condemned "the repressive attitude of Russia" towards Russian and foreign media.
International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was "alarmed by what looks like retaliation".
RSF said Gershkovich "was investigating the military company Wagner" — a mercenary group playing a prominent role in Russia's military campaign in Ukraine.
While the FSB noted Gershkovich was working with Russian foreign ministry press accreditation, it said he was detained "while attempting to obtain classified information" on Russia's military.
He was detained in Yekaterinburg a city some 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) east of Moscow but was transferred to the capital and placed in detention until May 29 pending trial.
A law enforcement source told the state-run TASS news agency that the case files were "top secret" and that Gershkovich had said he was not guilty of spying.
But both the Kremlin and foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed the journalist was "caught red handed".
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned Washington against putting pressure on Russian media working in the United States.
This "must not happen," he told reporters in a briefing.
Gershkovich, a fluent Russian speaker, worked for AFP in Moscow before joining the Wall Street Journal early last year.
He was previously a reporter based in the Russian capital for The Moscow Times, an English-language news website.
His family immigrated to the United States from Russia when he was a child.
Gershkovich's detention comes as Western journalists in Russia face increasing restrictions.
Staff of Western media outlets often report being tailed, particularly during trips outside of the major urban hubs of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Many Russians are reluctant to speak to foreign media, due to strict censorship laws adopted in the wake of the Ukraine offensive.
"The problem is that recently updated Russian legislation and the FSB's interpretation of espionage today allow for the imprisonment of anyone who is simply interested in military affairs," Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said on social media.
"No doubt this brings relations between Russia and the US to a new round of confrontation," she added.
Several US citizens are currently in detention in Russia and both Washington and Moscow have accused the other of carrying out politically-motivated arrests.
Paul Whelan, a former US Marine, was arrested in Russia in 2018 and handed a 16-year sentence on espionage charges. He is detained in a penal colony south of Moscow.
There have been several high-profile prisoner exchanges between Moscow and Washington over the past year.
In December, Moscow freed US basketball star Brittney Griner — arrested for bringing cannabis oil into the country — in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
But Russia's foreign ministry said Thursday it was too early to discuss any potential swap.
"I wouldn't raise a question like this now," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
"Some exchanges that took place in the past, they were for people who were already serving their sentences."
The authorities have also used espionage charges against Russian journalists.
Last year, Russia jailed a former defence reporter, Ivan Safronov, for 22 years on treason charges.
Safronov worked for business newspaper Kommersant and space agency Roscosmos and was one of Russia's most prominent journalists covering defence.
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