Mariana Katzarova, Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia and Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, were responding to the 31-year-old United States citizen’s arrest and detention while on a reporting trip in the city of Yekaterinburg.
“The arrest and indictment of Mr Gershkovich on serious criminal charges which could lead to 20 years in a penal colony is an example of the severe clamp down on freedom of opinion and expression and on independent journalism in Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine 17 months ago,” the experts said.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) correspondent was accused of acting on orders from the US Government to gather information constituting “State secrets”.
“Gershkovich’s arrest highlights the recent uptick in the use of the espionage and treason provisions of the Russian Federation Criminal Code to more frequently arrest individuals in Russia and we are alarmed by this growing trend,” the experts said. “It is a dangerous instrument given the gravity of the charges and the difficulty of public scrutiny in such cases,” they added.
The human rights experts expressed alarm over the recent uptick in the use of the espionage and treason provisions within the Criminal Code to arrest individuals, saying that in the first six months of this year, at least 43 people had been charged with treason.
According to available data, 16 people were convicted on similar charges in 2022, and at least 24 criminal proceedings were initiated in the same year. At the end of June, it was also reported that in the first six months of 2023, at least 43 people had been charged with treason in Russia, the press release from the experts said.
“This is the first time since the Soviet era that the Russian authorities have accused a US journalist of espionage and it sends a chilling message to all foreign journalists, and indeed to all journalists in Russia,” said the experts.
Mr. Gershkovich moved to Russia in 2017 to work as a Russia-accredited journalist. For the past year, he has worked as a correspondent for the WSJ, reporting on issues such as mobilisation of recruits, sanctions and their impact on the economy and people, Russia’s growing isolation, and the Government’s attempts to silence anti-war activism.
No embassy access
The prosecution has not publicly presented any evidence to date to substantiate its allegations of espionage, the Human Rights Council-appointed experts said.
The journalist has only been allowed two consular visits to date, despite numerous requests for access from the US Ambassador in Moscow. Russian authorities explain their refusal as a response to the “US denial of visas to Russian journalists”.
The Special Rapporteurs lodged an appeal over Mr. Gershkovich’s arbitrary arrest with the Russian authorities on 12 June and called for his immediate release. No response has been received to date.
Special Rapporteurs and other UN Human Rights Council-appointed rights experts, work on a voluntary and unpaid basis, are not UN staff, and work independently from any government or organisation.