Russian American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva is getting little sleep in the crowded cell of a Russian prison, where she awaits a decision on improper registration charges after visiting Russia to see her elderly mother.
She is maintaining her “positive spirit,” said Jeffrey Gedmin, the acting president of Kurmasheva’s employer, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). But he told The Hill this week that the situation remains dire: The detention conditions are poor, she has yet to see U.S. officials and is separated from her husband and two children.
“I’m hoping that authorities will realize she’s not a threat,” Gedmin told The Hill. “She’s not a lawbreaker. She’s not a menace. She’s a mother … and deserves to be free.”
Gedmin said he is working with U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow to visit Kurmasheva, who are awaiting permission from Russia for the meeting, and he is also in constant talks with the White House and State Department.
“There’s broad support and energy and focus throughout the highest level,“ he said. “On consular affairs, the Americans have made the request and are ready to go.”
Gedmin hopes to potentially secure Kurmasheva’s release through negotiations, which could involve a U.S.-Russia prisoner swap, but in the meantime he is working to improve her legal representation given she only has a local Russian lawyer.
Kurmasheva, who holds dual Russian and U.S. citizenship but lives in Prague, Czech Republic, was arrested on Oct. 18 in Kazan, Russia, on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent, and she now faces up to five years in prison.
She has also been accused of collecting military secrets, but those charges have not been formally filed, according to Gedmin.
Kurmasheva’s family and employers, the U.S.-funded RFE/RL news agency, have denied the charges and called for her immediate release.
Her husband, Pavel Butorin, said last weekend that he and Kurmasheva had just marked 21 years together.
“She should be celebrating this anniversary at home with me and our children, not in a Russian prison cell,” he wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Alsu is not a criminal. We want her back.”
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the U.S. is working on meeting with Kurmasheva.
“We are deeply concerned about her pretrial detention,” he said in an October press briefing.
The U.S. ambassador to the European Union and the vice president of the European Commission said this month Kurmasheva is wrongfully detained. The United Nations, human rights groups and press freedom organizations have all called for her immediate release.
Kurmasheva is an editor for RFE/RL and has reported extensively on culture, ethnicity and minority rights in the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Volga-Ural region of Russia. She has worked for the organization since 1998.
Kurmasheva traveled to Russia in May to see her ailing mother and was temporarily detained in June, with Russia taking her passports at the time before formally arresting her in late October.
Gedmin said he is unaware of any piece she wrote that would prompt Russian authorities to arrest her but fears it may be part of Russia’s attempts to detain Americans.
“I can’t point to any article that she or colleagues were doing, and they’ve been doing what they do for years,” he said. “The climate is changing, and since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, it does seem to be that Russia is tightening, and repression is becoming more severe.
“So it was probably a confluence of factors. And very, very unfortunate timing that she was there at this moment.”
Russia has tightened its laws on foreign agent registrations following the war in Ukraine and high tensions with Washington over the conflict, making it easier to detain those accused of acting under a foreign influence. Even Russian citizens such as Kurmasheva must register under new, broad laws if they are collecting information that could technically be provided to a foreign government.
In the spring, Russian authorities arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, accusing him of collecting state secrets on behalf of the U.S. government, charges his employer and the U.S. vehemently denies.
Gershkovich, who is still being held in pretrial detention, was the first American journalist arrested in Russia since the Cold War.
The Kremlin said it is not watching Kurmasheva’s case and does not arbitrarily detain Americans, according to Russian state-run media outlet TASS.
“There is absolutely no campaign in Russia to persecute U.S. citizens,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov last month. “There are U.S. citizens who violate the law [and] legal measures are taken against them. There is no other campaign of any kind.”
RFE/RL has had a tumultuous relationship with Russia since opening operations there in 1953, and it shuttered services in March 2022 after Moscow forced a bankruptcy case against the U.S.-funded group for not paying millions in fines. The fines were levied against the media group for failure to market itself as a foreign agent, among other charges RFE/RL has called unfair and tried to fight in court.
Russia has labeled more than 30 RFE/RL journalists as foreign agents. And three other RFE/RL journalists have been detained in Russian-allied Belarus and Russian-held Crimea since 2021, according to the media organization.
After the war in Ukraine, Russia also blocked the outlet’s website inside of Russia, although RFE/RL has continued to get its news out to Russian citizens.
Gedmin said since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and the arrest of Gershkovich, he has warned his journalists not to travel to Russia, along with other countries hostile to the U.S. or to the media — but some employees must balance the risk of detention with seeing family.
“I don’t want any of them to go at all,” he said. “But when you’re in the shoes of someone who has strong family bonds and feels torn about responsibility and perhaps the last chance to see a parent, it’s very, very tough.”
Kurmasheva has a December hearing set on her pretrial detention, and Gedmin hopes his employee can, at the very least, be placed on house arrest.
“She’s a culture reporter. She’s a mother of two kids,” he said. “So I hope that they will come to the sense that she just should come home.”
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Author: Brad Dress