WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich sentenced to 16 years in Russian prison on espionage charges. Here's how we got here.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands listening to the verdict in a glass cage of a courtroom inside the building of
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands listening to the verdict on Friday. (AP)

A Russian court convicted Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on espionage charges Friday and sentenced him to 16 years in a maximum-security prison.

The American journalist, the Journal and the U.S. all deny the espionage charges.

The trial proceedings took place behind closed doors in Yekaterinburg, a city about 1,200 miles east of Moscow, where Gershkovich was first apprehended by Russian security agents while he was on a reporting assignment in March 2023. The Journal says Gershkovich was working under accreditation from Russia’s Foreign Ministry at the time of his arrest.

According to a June indictment, the American journalist was accused of gathering secret information on behalf of the CIA regarding a Russian facility that produces and repairs military equipment.

At no point during the trial did the prosecution present any evidence publicly to support the espionage charges, the New York Times reports. The expedited and secretive trial could signal a potential prisoner exchange between Moscow and the U.S., the Associated Press reports.

“This disgraceful, sham conviction comes after Evan has spent 478 days in prison, wrongfully detained, away from his family and friends, prevented from reporting, all for doing his job as a journalist," Almar Latour, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and the paper's Editor in Chief Emma Tucker said in a statement Friday following news of the verdict.

"We will continue to do everything possible to press for Evan’s release and to support his family. Journalism is not a crime, and we will not rest until he’s released. This must end now."

President Biden said after Gershkovich was convicted on Friday, "As I have long said and as the UN also concluded, there is no question that Russia is wrongfully detaining Evan. Journalism is not a crime ... Additionally, since the very first day of my Administration, I have had no higher priority than seeking the release and safe return of Evan, Paul Whelan and all Americans wrongfully detained and held hostage abroad. Evan has endured his ordeal with remarkable strength. We will not cease in our efforts to bring him home."

On Dec. 5, 2023, the State Department said that the Biden administration made a new offer to secure the release of both Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, another American detained in Russia, but Moscow rejected it. The State Department didn’t reveal the details of the offer or why Moscow might have rejected it.

Following Putin’s remarks on Dec. 14, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said, “We would welcome them engaging seriously with us to obtain the release of Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, but so far we have seen them refuse to take us up on our proposals, and we hope that they will change the way they’ve handled this going forward.”

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich
Gershkovich at an earlier Moscow court hearing, Oct. 10, 2023. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

Gershkovich, 32, is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and was accredited to work as a journalist by the Russian Foreign Ministry, according to the Journal.

He was detained by the country's Federal Security Service on March 29, 2023, while on assignment in Yekaterinburg, just a day after he co-authored an article on Russia’s declining economy following its invasion of Ukraine.

At the time Gershkovich was accused of espionage, Russian authorities didn't provided detailed evidence to support the accusation. He is being held in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison, infamous for its harsh conditions.

Paul Whelan, right
Paul Whelan, right, a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage by Russia, June 15, 2020. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, is a corporate security executive from Michigan who holds U.S., Canadian, British and Irish citizenships. He has been detained by Russian authorities for over five years — since Dec. 28, 2018 — and was imprisoned on espionage charges for his alleged involvement in an intelligence operation. He, his family and the U.S. have said the allegation is false. Whelan said he was in Moscow to attend a friend’s wedding.

In 2020, Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in a remote prison labor camp in Mordovia, where he has been detained ever since. “If I had known that there would be any sort of problem, I would never have come here,” Whelan told CNN via phone from the prison camp in December.

Whelan also called on President Biden to “please use every resource available to secure my release as you would do if your own son had been taken hostage.”

Back in July 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a proposal was made to Moscow for the release of Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner. Griner was released in a prisoner swap in December 2022, but Whelan wasn’t part of the deal.

Whelan told the BBC last December that he feels like the U.S. has left him behind.

"A serious betrayal. It's extremely frustrating," Whelan said. "I know that the U.S. has come up with all sorts of proposals — serious proposals — but it's not what the Russians are after. So they keep going back and forth. The only problem is, it's my life that's draining away while they do this."