President Biden demanded Friday that Russia release Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich after he was arrested this week on spying charges.
“Let him go,” Biden told reporters when asked if he had a message to Moscow about Gershkovich, before adding vaguely that “we’re in the process.”
When asked if he was going to retaliate for the reporter’s detention by expelling Russian diplomats or journalists from the US, the 80-year-old commander-in-chief replied: “That’s not the plan right now.”
Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters at a news conference in Zambia that the administration was “deeply concerned” about Gershkovich’s arrest.
“We will not tolerate — and condemn, in fact — repression of journalists,” Harris said.
Gershkovich, 31, had spent six years covering Russia for the Journal, Agence France-Presse and the English-language Moscow Times. He was detained Wednesday on suspicion of espionage while on assignment in the city of Yekaterinburg.
Russia’s FSB security service accused the US national, whose parents emigrated from the Soviet Union, of gathering information classified as a state secret about a military factory, although the agency provided no evidence of his crime.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he believed Gershkovich had been “caught red-handed,” but he did not go into any specifics.
Gershkovich’s employer argued that the allegations against him were false, while White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dismissed the FSB’s spying claims as “ridiculous.”
“The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms,” she said in a statement.
Gershkovich was hauled before a judge in Moscow Thursday and pleaded not guilty to espionage counts, after which he was ordered held in jail until May 29.
Gershkovich is the first foreign reporter to be criminally charged with spying in Russia since 1986, when US News and World correspondent Nicholas Daniloff was detained for three weeks before being swapped for an employee of the Soviet UN Mission.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was working as an intelligence officer with the KGB at the time of the Daniloff affair.
If convicted, Gershkovich could face up to 20 years in prison.
A senior Kremlin official said it was too early to talk about a possible prisoner swap, like the one that saw WNBA star Brittney Griner freed in December in exchange for arms trafficker Victor Bout.
A chorus of journalists and human rights activists have come to Gershkovich’s defense, contending that he is innocent and must be freed.
The National Press Club released a statement saying that it considers Gershkovich’s detention to be “unjust” and calling for his immediate release.
The BBC’s Russia editor, Steve Rosenberg, said: “Evan Gershkovich is an experienced, well-respected journalist, officially accredited in Moscow. As the Wall Street Journal put it, he’s a ‘trusted and dedicated reporter’. For him to be facing espionage charges is simply unbelievable.”
Joshua Yaffa, who covers Russia for the New Yorker, chimed in: “Needless to say these allegations (offensive to even use the term) are an absurd fiction. Truth may not decide the case, but it still matters. Freedom to Evan.”