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The trial of an American reporter accused of spying in Russia starts on June 26

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s spy trial of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is set to begin June 26 and will take place behind closed doors, a statement from the court that will hear the case said Monday.

Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen, has been behind bars since his arrest in March 2023 and faces 20 years in prison if convicted.

The trial will take place at the Sverdlovsky Regional Court in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, where he was arrested. Gershkovich has since been held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, about 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) to the west.

The court said the trial will be closed to the public, as is customary in espionage cases.

Gershkovich, 32, is accused of “collecting classified information” on orders from the CIA about Uralvagonzavod, a facility that produces and repairs military equipment, the attorney general’s office said last week in the first details of the charges against him .

The reporter, his employer and the US government have denied the allegations, and Washington labeled him as wrongfully detained.

Russia’s Federal Security Service alleged that Gershkovich was acting on US orders to collect state secrets, but provided no evidence to support the allegations.

“Evan didn’t do anything wrong. He should never have been arrested in the first place. Journalism is not a crime,” U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said last week. “The charges against him are false. And the Russian government knows they are false. He must be released immediately.”

The Biden administration has tried to negotiate Gershkovich’s release, but Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow would only consider a prisoner swap after a trial ruling.

Uralvagonzavod, a state-owned tank and rail car factory in the city of Nizhny Tagil, about 100 kilometers north of Yekaterinburg, rose to prominence in 2011-2012 as a backer for President Vladimir Putin.

Factory foreman Igor Kholmanskih appeared on Putin’s annual telephone program in December 2011 and denounced the mass protests taking place in Moscow at the time as a threat to “stability”, and suggested that he and his colleagues travel to the Russian capital to help quell the unrest. A week later, Putin appointed Kholmanskikh as his envoy to the region.

Putin has said he believes a deal can be reached to release Gershkovich, hinting that he would be willing to exchange him for a Russian national jailed in Germany. That turned out to be Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence for the 2019 murder of a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent in Berlin.

Asked by The Associated Press about Gershkovich, Putin said the US was “taking energetic steps” to secure his release. He told international news agencies at an economic forum in St. Petersburg in early June that such publications “are not decided through the mass media,” but through a “discreet, calm and professional approach.”

“And that should certainly be decided solely on the basis of reciprocity,” he added, hinting at a possible prisoner swap.

Gershkovich was the first American journalist to be taken into custody for espionage since Nicholas Daniloff in 1986, at the height of the Cold War. Gershkovich’s arrest shocked foreign journalists in Russia, even as the country had enacted increasingly repressive freedom of expression laws after sending troops into Ukraine.

Alsu Kurmasheva, a reporter for the US-funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe with dual US-Russian citizenship, has been jailed since October awaiting trial on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent while gathering information about the Russian army.

Gershkovich, the son of Soviet émigrés who settled in New Jersey, is fluent in Russian and moved to the country in 2017 to work for The Moscow Times newspaper before being hired by the Journal in 2022.

U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy, who regularly visited Gershkovich in prison and attended his hearings, has called the charges against him “fiction” and said Russia is “using American citizens as pawns to achieve political ends.”

In addition, American soldier Gordon Black is on trial in Vladivostok on charges of theft and threatening murder in a dispute with a Russian woman. Black, who was stationed in South Korea but visited the Pacific coast city, told a court on Monday that he denied the charge of threatened murder but admitted “partially” theft, state news agency RIA-Novosti said.