By Filipp Lebedev and Andrew Osborn
(Reuters) – Radio Free Europe fears Russia has taken one of its journalists “hostage” for a potential prisoner swap with the United States and is appealing to Moscow not to treat her cruelly, the broadcaster’s acting president has said.
Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), has been in custody since Oct. 18. She was earlier briefly detained in June while trying to fly out of Russia after visiting her mother.
Kurmasheva, 47, is the second U.S. journalist to be held in Russia since the start of the Ukraine war in February 2022.
A court first found her guilty of failing to declare that she had a U.S. passport, mandatory under Russian law, and fined her. She was then charged with failing to register as a “foreign agent”, an offence that carries up to five years in jail and one she has pleaded not guilty to.
“My view is when she entered the country last May they saw her as a potential hostage and they wanted to watch and wait and listen and learn,” RFE’s acting president Jeffrey Gedmin told Reuters in an interview conducted late on Friday.
“And then suddenly, they escalated, they arrested, and they published a very vivid video of her in handcuffs being carted off. They published the photo page of her passport, and they published the address of her mother. It was a quick acceleration, very brazen, very aggressive,” he said.
RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. Congress and is itself designated “a foreign agent” by Russia on the grounds it gets foreign funding for activity Moscow deems political.
Kurmasheva’s arrest followed that of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, in March on spying charges which he denies. He remains in pre-trial custody.
The charges against Kurmasheva are less serious, but Gedmin speculated she and Gershkovich could both be part of a swap.
“It’s my belief that they saw her as a potential hostage and then, at a given moment, they said yes she’s useful to us, she’s an asset, she has some value and now we’re going to pursue this path in setting up a situation where – under different circumstances – she and Evan, separately or together, could be part of a trade.”
The Kremlin has denied a U.S. allegation that her case is another example of Russia harassing U.S. citizens.
“In Russia there is absolutely no campaign to persecute U.S. citizens,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, when asked about Kurmasheva’s case.
“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.”
Ilya Yashin, an opposition politician who has also been designated a foreign agent and jailed for spreading “false information” about the Russian army, said Kurmasheva’s case was unusual in its harshness.
“Just think about it,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “A person was imprisoned literally for refusing to denounce themselves. (George) Orwell is turning in his grave.”
Gedmin said RFE was pursuing every avenue to try to secure Kurmasheva’s release but feared it was unlikely, though not impossible, that a court would acquit her.
The Tatar-Inform news agency has quoted investigators as saying Kurmasheva had been gathering information on military activity, including about university teachers who had been called up to the army.
Gedmin said Kurmasheva had made a purely private trip and had not worked.
“They need not be cruel to a woman and a mum with kids who does mostly cultural reporting who wanted to visit her ageing mother for one last time,” said Gedmin.
(Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)