(LONDON) — A Russian prison monitor says he has visited Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in the Moscow jail where he is being held after being seized on spying charges last week.
Alexey Melnikov, who heads the Public Oversight Commission, told ABC News he visited Gershkovich in Lefortovo prison late Sunday evening and spoke for around 45 minutes with the American reporter, who he said was in good spirits.
“On the whole he was in a cheerful mood, you could say. We even joked a little,” Melnikov told ABC News, saying he thought it was perhaps a “self-defense reaction,” which can be quite common for people who are detained.
“He behaved himself entirely normally. He wasn’t in a depressed state, he was quite cheerful.”
Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, arrested Gershkovich last Wednesday, while he was on a reporting trip 800 miles from Moscow in Yekaterinburg, and accused him of collecting classified information on behalf of the United States. The Wall Street Journal has “vehemently” denied the charges and most experts believe Russia has taken Gershkovich as a hostage amid tensions with the United States.
The U.S. government, as well as dozens of leading international news organisations have called the charges false and demanded Russia immediately release Gershkovich, who faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Gershkovich, 31, is currently awaiting trial in Lefortovo, a former KGB prison known for holding high-profile prisoners. He pleaded not guilty in a closed court hearing on Thursday, where his lawyer and media were not allowed in.
Russia has not permitted U.S. diplomats or Gershkovich’s lawyer to visit him since his arrest. WSJ Editor in Chief Emma Tucker said on Sunday no one from the newspaper or the U.S. government had been able to communicate with Gershkovich, but she said she was hopeful his lawyer would be able to this week.
Melnikov, whose commission is authorised by Russian law to inspect prison conditions, said that Gershkovich’s detention in Lefortovo so far followed standard practice and said he had not complained of any mistreatment by guards.
He said Gershkovich was currently alone in a two-man cell during a “quarantine” period, but that once he had tested negative for coronavirus he might receive a cellmate this week. According to Melnikov, the cell has a TV with 20-30 Russian channels, a radio and a kettle. He was being fed soup and porridge, Melnikov said, and was permitted to shower once a week.
“He can watch TV, he can read. He can listen to the radio. He has walks,” Melnikov said. Gershkovich should also be allowed to write and receive letters, he said, as long as they are written in Russian.
Gershkovich had joked that it was a pity the television didn’t have the sports channel, Match TV premier, because there was a soccer match Sunday he would have liked to watch, Melnikov said.
He said, Gershkovich is currently reading Life and Fate, the classic novel by Soviet war reporter Vasily Grossman describing the battle between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany during World War II.
Gershkovich told him the jail “corresponded to his expectations,” Melnikov said.
Melnikov said his commission is strictly limited to discussing prison conditions and so was unable to ask Gershkovich about the charges against him.
Lefortovo is exceptionally strict, Melnikov said, which meant it can be isolating but that it lacked the chaotic violence common in other Russian jails. Unsanctioned communication with the outside world is impossible, he said.
Melnikov is secretary of the Public Oversight Commission, which is a semi-state body set up to monitor conditions in jails. He is also a member of the Russian presidential human rights council, which has been criticised as toothless and stacked with Kremlin loyalists.
Melnikov said when he visited on Sunday Gershkovich’s lawyer had not been granted access to him.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Sunday to demand Gershkovich’s immediate release, calling his detention unacceptable.
Blinken also called for the release of Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine imprisoned by Russia since 2018 on espionage charges the U.S. and his family say are false.
Experts believe Gershkovich’s case resembles Whelan’s and those of other Americans seized by the Kremlin in recent years as bargaining chips, including WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Trevor Reed. Griner and Reed were released in separate prisoner swaps over the past 12 months, in exchange for Russians held in U.S. prisons.
Griner over the weekend called for Gershkovich’s release and urged her supporters to “encourage the administration to continue to use every tool possible to bring Evan and all Americans home.”
“Our hearts are filled with great concern for Evan Gershkovitch [sic] and his family,” Griner wrote in a statement on Instagram, also expressing gratitude for the “Biden administration’s deep commitment to rescue Americans.”
Gershkovich, whose parents are Jewish emigres from the Soviet Union who moved to the U.S. in 1979, grew up speaking Russian in Princeton, New Jersey. He has worked in Russia since 2017, writing for Agence France-Presse and the Moscow Times, before joining the WSJ just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“He said he felt privileged to be able to report from inside the country when many of our Russian colleagues and friends had to flee,” Pjotr Sauer, a Guardian correspondent covering Russia and close friend of Gershkovich wrote in an op-ed this week.
“For years, Evan did everything he could to tell the story of modern Russia. It is now our turn to keep the light shining on him. I want to have my friend back.”
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