Russia extends detention of a US journalist detained for failing to register as a foreign agent

Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for the U.S. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was accused of reporting on the Russian military ‘in order to transmit information to foreign sources,’ the state-run website Tatar-Inform said

Alsu Kurmasheva
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia October 20, 2023.ALEXEY NASYROV (REUTERS)

A Russian-American journalist was ordered Friday to be detained for another three days on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent, Russian media reported. Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, appeared in court in the central Russian city of Kazan, according to the state news agency Tass.

She is the second U.S. journalist detained in Russia this year, after Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges in March. Photos published by independent Russian news website Mediazona showed Kurmasheva, who works for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir service, inside a defendant’s cage in the courtroom, wearing a coat with a hood and a face mask.

The state-run news website Tatar-Inform said Kurmasheva faces charges of failing to register as a “foreign agent” and was collecting information on Russian military activities. It said she could receive up to five years in prison.

Kurmasheva was accused of reporting on the Russian military “in order to transmit information to foreign sources,” alleging she received information about university teachers who were mobilized by the army, Tatar-Inform said. Her lawyer, Edgar Matevosyan, said she is not guilty of the charges, according to Mediazona.

“Alsu is a highly respected colleague, devoted wife, and dedicated mother to two children,” said RFE/RL head Jeffrey Gedmin. “She needs to be released, so she can return to her family immediately.” Kurmasheva, who lives in Prague, was stopped June 2 at Kazan International Airport after traveling to Russia for a family emergency May 20, according to RFE/RL.

Airport officials confiscated her U.S. and Russian passports and she was fined for failing to register her U.S. passport. She was waiting for her passports to be returned when the new charge was filed Wednesday, RFE/RL said.

“At that time, it was clear they did not have anything on her, so maybe it was like a matter of intimidation. And then it took them three months to decide how would they, you know, package the case against her,” according to Galina Arapova of Russia’s Mass Media Defense Center.

Arapova told The Associated Press the charges against Kurmasheva are a “sophisticated form of censorship.” She added that Kurmasheva’s case is different from that of Gershkovich, even though both are U.S. citizens. “She was attacked because she is a Russian journalist. Second, she belongs to a foreign media, which was already regarded as a foreign agent and with which Russian authorities had a longstanding conflict on foreign agent legislation,” she said.

The U.S. State Department calls Kurmasheva’s arrest another instance of Russian harassment of U.S. citizens. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied it, saying “there has been absolutely no campaign in Russia to harass U.S. citizens.” “There are U.S. citizens who violate the law, and legitimate measures are taken against them,” Peskov told reporters Friday.

RFE/RL was told in 2017 to register by Russian authorities as a foreign agent, but it has challenged Moscow’s use of foreign agent laws in the European Court of Human Rights. The organization has been fined millions of dollars by Russia.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called the charges against Kurmasheva “spurious,” saying her detention “is yet more proof that Russia is determined to stifle independent reporting.” Kurmasheva reported on ethnic minority communities in the Tatarstan and Bashkortostan republics in Russia, including projects to preserve the Tatar language and culture, her employer said.

Analysts say the Kremlin may be using jailed Americans as bargaining chips after U.S.-Russia tensions soared amid Moscow sending troops into Ukraine. At least two U.S. citizens arrested in Russia in recent years — including WNBA star Brittney Griner — have been exchanged for Russians jailed in the U.S. Gershkovich has appeared in court several times since his arrest to appeal for his release, without success.

Russia’s Federal Security Service alleged Gershkovich, “acting on the instructions of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.” Gershkovich and The Wall Street Journal deny the allegations, and the U.S. government has declared him to be wrongfully detained.

Russian authorities haven’t detailed any evidence to support the charges. Court proceedings against him are closed because prosecutors say details of the case are classified.

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