WASHINGTON - The Biden administration formally determined Monday that a Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia on espionage charges has been "wrongfully detained."
The designation elevates the case of Evan Gershkovich in the U.S. government hierarchy and means that a dedicated State Department office will take the lead on securing his release.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the determination on Monday, saying he condemned the arrest and Russia’s repression of independent media.
"Today, Secretary Blinken made a determination that Evan Gershkovich is wrongfully detained by Russia," the department said in a statement. "Journalism is not a crime. We condemn the Kremlin’s continued repression of independent voices in Russia, and its ongoing war against the truth."
A picture taken on July 24, 2021 shows journalist Evan Gershkovich. - A US reporter for The Wall Street Journal newspaper has been detained in Russia for espionage, Russian news agencies reported Thursday, citing the FSB security services. "The FSB
Russian authorities arrested Gershkovich, 31, in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, on March 29. He is the first U.S. correspondent since the Cold War to be detained for alleged spying.
The Federal Security Service specifically accused Gershkovich of trying to obtain classified information about a Russian arms factory. The Wall Street Journal has denied the accusations.
The State Department said the U.S. government will provide all appropriate support to Gershkovich and his family and again called for Russia to release him as well as another detained American citizen, Paul Whelan.
Monday's statement from Blinken was the first public comment on the case since Russian news agencies reported on Friday that Gershkovich had been charged with espionage and had entered a formal denial.
The state news agency Tass and the Interfax news agency said a law enforcement source informed them that the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, had officially charged the American journalist.
The news outlets didn’t say in what form Gershkovich was formally charged or when it happened, but generally suspects are presented a paper outlining the accusations.
In the Russian legal system, the filing of charges and a response from the accused represent the formal start of a criminal probe, initiating what could be a long and secretive Russian judicial process.
Tass quoted its source as saying: "The FSB investigation charged Gershkovich with espionage in the interests of his country. He categorically denied all accusations and stated that he was engaged in journalistic activities in Russia."
The source declined further comment because the case is considered secret.
The case has caused an international uproar and last Thursday, the U.S ambassador to Russia and a top Russian diplomat met to discuss the case.
In the meeting with U.S. Ambassador Lynne T. Tracy, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stressed "the serious nature of the charges" against Gershkovich, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The statement repeated earlier Russian claims that the reporter "was caught red-handed while trying to obtain secret information, using his journalistic status as a cover for illegal actions."
Gershkovich has been ordered held behind bars for two months in Russia pending an investigation. A Moscow court said it had received a defense appeal of his arrest; the appeal is scheduled to be heard on April 18, according to Russian news agencies.