Russian court extends custody of US journalist in ‘foreign agent’ case

KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) – Russian-American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva had her detention extended by 72 hours on Friday in a case where she is accused of violating Russia’s law on foreign agents.

Kurmasheva is a Prague-based journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which is funded by the U.S. Congress and designated by Russia as a foreign agent, meaning it gets foreign funding for activity deemed to be political.

Video from inside the court showed Kurmasheva sitting in a glass box with her arms folded, wearing a large white COVID-style mask over her face and a black coat with the hood covering her head. Kurmasheva’s lawyer Edgar Matevosyan told Reuters that she was pleading not guilty.

She is the second U.S. journalist to be arrested and charged in Russia since the start of its war in Ukraine, which has sunk relations between Moscow and Washington to their lowest level in more than 60 years.

After Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in March on spying charges, which he denies, almost all other U.S. journalists left Russia. Washington has repeatedly urged other Americans to leave.

“This appears to be another case of the Russian government harassing U.S. citizens,” State Department spokesperson Matt Miller told reporters on Thursday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that, telling reporters: “In Russia there is absolutely no campaign to persecute U.S. citizens. There are U.S. citizens who break the law and legal action is taken against them. There is no other campaign and we consider it inappropriate to speak of one.”

Peskov did not comment on the nature of the case against Kurmasheva and said that the Kremlin was not following it.

That contrasted with its reaction after Gershkovich’s arrest, when Peskov told reporters, without providing evidence, that the reporter had been “caught red-handed” while trying to obtain military secrets.

No date has been set for a trial of either Gershkovich or Kurmasheva.

Kurmasheva, who holds U.S. and Russian passports, entered Russia on May 20 to deal with a family emergency, RFE/RL said. As she awaited her return flight on June 2, she was detained and her passports were confiscated.

According to court documents, Kurmasheva was fined 10,000 roubles ($103) on Oct. 11 for failing to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities. She was charged a week later with failure to register as a foreign agent, an offence that carries up to five years in prison.

“We are concerned by the decision to prolong Alsu’s detention,” said RFE/RL acting president Jeffrey Gedmin. “Journalism is not a crime. She must be released to her family immediately.”

RFE/RL has called for Kurmasheva’s immediate release, calling her a “highly respected colleague, devoted wife, and dedicated mother to two children”.

The term “foreign agent”, which has Cold War connotations of espionage, has been applied in Russia to organisations, journalists, rights activists and even entertainers, and brings with it close government scrutiny and a mountain of red tape.

It is unclear whether Kurmasheva might face further charges. The Tatar-Inform news agency quoted investigators as saying she had been gathering information on military activity, including about university teachers who had been called up to the army.

(Reporting by Filipp Lebedev, Mark Trevelyan and Felix Light; Editing by Hugh Lawson)