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Russian-American journalist detained in Russia for violating foreign agents law

A Russian-American journalist has been detained in Russia on charges of violating its foreign agents law, reportedly due to her coverage of Russia’s military mobilisation for its invasion of Ukraine.

Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor with Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty’s (RFE-RL) Tatar-Bashkir service, was detained on Wednesday by masked Russian law enforcement agents.

RFE-RL confirmed her detention in a statement on Thursday and said Kurmasheva had been charged with failure to register as a foreign agent and faced up to five years in prison.

Kurmasheva is the second American journalist to be detained in Russia since the war began. Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was arrested in March and charged with espionage. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison, but will probably be the subject of negotiations for a prisoner exchange with the US. He is being held in Russia’s notorious Lefortovo jail.

The charges against Gershkovich have been kept secret, although Russia’s FSB security service accused him of “collecting classified information”.

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The Russian government has not made public the details of the criminal case against Kurmasheva. RFE-RL suspended its operations in Russia after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and reporters for the outlet have since come under intense pressure as independent journalists with ties to a news agency funded by the US Congress.

RFE-RL said Kurmasheva was a dual US-Russian citizen who lived in Prague with her husband and children. She travelled to Russia in May for a family emergency and had been prevented from leaving the country in early June. Russian authorities confiscated her passports and then announced new charges on Tuesday.

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The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), citing regional Russian state media, said she was being prosecuted for “deliberately [conducting] a targeted collection of military information about Russian activities via the internet in order to transmit information to foreign sources”.

Tatar-Inform, the local state media agency, cited a source who said that Kurmasheva had reported on recruitment efforts at a university in Tatarstan, a Russian region. Prosecutors claimed the information could be used to “discredit Russia” or could be “used against the safety of the Russian Federation”.

The news agency also suggested that Russian prosecutors may be considering other charges against Kurmasheva, including the distribution of literature critical of the Russian war in Ukraine, which the government calls a “special military operation”.

“Alsu is a highly respected colleague, devoted wife, and dedicated mother to two children,” said RFE-RL’s acting president, Jeffrey Gedmin. “She needs to be released so she can return to her family immediately.”

In a statement, RFE-RL called Kurmasheva an “accomplished journalist” who had covered efforts to preserve local Tatar language and culture from the Russian authorities, who “have exerted increased pressure on Tatars in recent years”.

Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said: “CPJ is deeply concerned by the detention of US-Russian journalist Alsu Kurmasheva on spurious criminal charges and calls on Russian authorities to release her immediately and drop all charges against her.”

“Journalism is not a crime and Kurmasheva’s detention is yet more proof that Russia is determined to stifle independent reporting.”

Dmitry Kolezev, an independent Russian journalist, wrote that the criminal article being used against Kurmasheva effectively required her to voluntarily declare herself a “foreign agent”. He had previously called the article, which is rarely used, “treason light”.

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The FSB has declared an extremely broad spectrum of information to be sensitive to national interests, he wrote, and a foreign agent can now be anyone who has simply “fallen under foreign influence”.

“This is a law by which anyone can be convicted at all,” he said, adding: “In general, they’ve taken another hostage.”

Hundreds of Russian journalists have gone into exile since Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, with state censors closing a number of a respected independent media and launching criminal cases against prominent journalists and regional bloggers.

A number have been handed down prison sentences for publishing reports that violate tough new laws on “fake news”. In particular, courts have punished reporters who publish news about war crimes committed by Russian soldiers and about Russian casualty numbers, which have been kept from the public.

In February, Maria Ponomarenko, a Siberian journalist, was sentenced to six years in prison for reports on the Russian bombing of a drama theatre in Mariupol that is thought to have killed hundreds of people. She was convicted of violating Russian wartime censorship laws.

Earlier this year, Mikhail Afanasyev, a popular journalist from the Khakassia region, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison under the same article. He had just published an explosive report about 11 members of the Russian national guard who had refused to fight in Ukraine, he said, and the military was hiding information about their unit’s casualties from the public.

OVD-Info, an organisation that monitors the Russian courts and justice system, has estimated nearly 7,500 administrative cases have already been filed for “discrediting” the Russian armed forces.