Russia on Thursday remanded an American journalist from the Wall Street Journal whom it accuses of espionage, an unprecedented case in the recent history of the country which arouses the "concern" of the United States.
The arrest of journalist Evan Gershkovich comes in a context of increased repression in Russia against the press since the offensive against Ukraine, which has greatly strained relations between Moscow and Washington.
The Russian security services (FSB) announced Thursday that the reporter had been arrested in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, on suspicion of "espionage", the Kremlin ensuring that he had been caught "flagrante delicto".
Mr. Gershkovich, a 31-year-old Russian-speaking reporter known for his thoroughness, denied the charges against him during a hearing in a Moscow court, according to Russian state news agency Tass.
The American journalist has nevertheless been remanded in custody until May 29, a measure which may be extended pending a possible trial.
According to Tass, the case has been classified as "secret", which restricts the publication of information about it.
The only details available at this stage: the FSB announced that it had "thwarted an illegal activity" by arresting Evan Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, on an unspecified date.
The Russian security services say they suspect him of "espionage for the benefit of the United States", accusing him in particular of having collected information "on a company of the Russian military-industrial complex".
According to Article 276 of the Russian Criminal Code, the journalist theoretically faces up to 20 years in prison.
Before joining the American daily in 2022, Mr Gershkovich was a correspondent for AFP in Moscow, and before that, for the English-language newspaper Moscow Times. He is of Russian origin and his parents reside in the United States.
The White House slammed the "unacceptable" arrest and spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre called the espionage charge "ridiculous", while US Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said he was "extremely concerned".
The European Union, through its head of diplomacy Josep Borrell "condemns" the detention of Evan Gershkovich by Russia, in a tweet which denounces Moscow's "systematic disregard" for press freedom.
"Journalists must be able to exercise their profession freely and deserve to be protected. The Russian authorities are once again demonstrating their systematic disregard for media freedom," Borrell added.
On its website, the Wall Street Journal called for the release of its journalist and "strongly denied" the espionage charges.
"The actions of the Russian government to repress and harass journalists are unacceptable and reflect Putin's complete disregard for fundamental freedoms," said British Ambassador to the United States Karen Pierce.
"Russia has crossed the Rubicon and made it clear to foreign correspondents that they will not be spared the ongoing purge of independent media," said the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The NGO Reporters Without Borders said it was "alarmed" by "what appears to be a measure of reprisal".
Ignoring criticism, the Kremlin claimed Mr Gershkovich had been caught "in the act", and warned against any form of retaliation against Russian media in the United States.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia has passed several laws punishing heavy prison sentences for any criticism, or assimilating journalistic investigations on certain sensitive subjects to espionage.
"The new Russian legislation (...) makes it possible to imprison anyone interested in military affairs for 20 years", notes independent Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, who heads the R.Politik analysis center. .
For her, this arrest is the result of a "thoughtful decision by the Kremlin" which wants to use it as a "hostage" to "put pressure" on US President Joe Biden to start discussions for an exchange of prisoners.
Several Russian-American exchanges have indeed taken place in recent years.
Asked about a potential future exchange with Washington, Russian diplomacy deemed the subject premature, calling via its Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Riabkov, to "see how this story evolves".
Several Americans are already detained in Russia, one of whom, Paul Whelan, is serving a 16-year prison sentence for "espionage" in a case that the person concerned and Washington consider fabricated.
The last exchange dates back to December when Russia handed over the American basketball player Brittney Griner, detained for drug trafficking, in exchange for the release of the arms trafficker Viktor Bout imprisoned in the United States.
If the Russian press and journalists critical of the Kremlin are often prosecuted, foreign journalists have been spared, Moscow having preferred to expel correspondents and toughen accreditation rules.
Foreign reporters are also sometimes followed by the security services during their reporting, especially outside Moscow.
In this context, many Western media have greatly reduced their presence in Russia since the entry of Russian forces into Ukraine.
03/30/2023 21:38:46 - Moscow (AFP) - © 2023 AFP