A Kazan court has detained Alsu Kurmasheva, a reporter for Idel.Realii, the Tatar-Bashkir service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), until 5 December for failing to register with the Ministry of Justice as a foreign agent as required by Russian law. She now faces up to five years in prison.
This is the first case of someone being tried under a new Russian law that criminalises an individual for collecting information about the military – however unclassified – unless that person has registered as a foreign agent.
Alsu Kurmasheva has worked for RFE/RL since 1998 covering the issues faced by ethnic minorities in the Volga and Ural regions, as well as issues around protecting and preserving Tatar language and culture. She is a dual Russian and American national and lives with her family in Prague.
She travelled to Russia on 20 May for a private visit and was detained at Kazan Airport on 2 June while waiting for her flight home. Her passports were confiscated and she was fined for failing to notify the Interior Ministry of her second citizenship and her permanent residence in the Czech Republic.
Kurmasheva then spent months in Russia waiting for her documents to be returned only to be detained again on 18 October and accused of failing to declare herself a foreign agent.
State-run regional TV channel Tatarstan said that Kurmasheva had “collected information on Russia’s military activities and transmitted it to foreign sources”. According to regional website Tatar-Inform, the investigators suggested Kurmasheva had been given information about lecturers at one of Tatarstan’s universities being drafted into the army, something they believed was being used by international institutions to discredit Russia.
The same TV channel also published a screenshot of what it described as personal correspondence between Kurmasheva and her husband Pavel Butorin, the director of TV channel Current Time, which is also part of RFE/RL, in which they discuss handing over a book at a meeting, thought to be a reference to “No to War”, which was published by Idel.Realii in November and in which people from the Volga region speak out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The channel said Kurmasheva had “distributed her book at the White House,” and had even given a copy to US President Joe Biden. Tatar-Inform suggested that there could be further criminal charges pressed against Kurmasheva, given that she had also published “a book that portrays Russia’s war in Ukraine in a negative light”.
Jeffrey Gedmin, the acting President of RFE/RL has condemned the Russian authorities for Kurmasheva’s detention and called for her immediate release and for her to be allowed to return to her family. “Alsu is a highly respected colleague, devoted wife, and dedicated mother to two children,” Gedmin stressed.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also called for Kurmasheva’s immediate release. “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,” CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme co-ordinator, Gulnoza Said, said adding that her detention was further evidence of a clampdown on independent journalism in Russia.
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recalled the arrest of The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich and demanded his release alongside that of Kurmasheva. “It’s no secret that Russia has a long and disturbing history of unjustly detaining US citizens, especially members of the free press,” he said, adding that journalism was “not a crime and should never be met with persecution, intimidation, suppression.”
Amanda Bennett, the CEO of the United States Agency for International Media, also condemned Kurmasheva’s arrest. “Journalism is not a crime. Alsu Kurmasheva is a distinguished journalist and a beloved member of her community. Her detention is categorically unjust and she should be released immediately.”
Do it yourself
The failure to declare oneself a foreign agent has now been a criminal offence under Russian law for almost three years, and it’s not just journalists or human rights advocates who can fall foul of the law – anyone gathering information on the military must make a declaration. However, not a single criminal case for violating that requirement had been made before now.
Initially the law only applied to those gathering information on military and technical matters in Russia itself, but late last year, amid the war in Ukraine and the mass emigration of Russians, the article was extended to cover those outside the country as well.
Any person, regardless of citizenship and profession, is obliged to register with the Ministry of Justice as a foreign agent if “intentionally gathering information in the field of Russian military and defence activities,” that could be used to harm Russian security, the law says.
An FSB directive contains more than 60 articles specifying information that cannot be gathered unless you first register voluntarily as a foreign agent. This covers the deployment and movement of troops and mobilisation, gathering information “on compliance with the law and troop morale”, and data on “crimes and preliminary investigations,” conducted by the FSB and military investigative bodies.
Galina Arapova, a lawyer at the Mass Media Defence Centre, believes that the criminal articles is, at its core, “an indirect ban on the collection of any information related to military matters”.
She sees “everyone who, in the course of their work, deals with military matters — journalists who use a by-line, editors-in-chief, military experts and analysts, lawyers and human rights advocates who protect servicemen and their families,” facing the threat of prosecution.
The news of Kurmasheva’s arrest broke on the evening of 18 October. The journalist had been in pre-trial detention all that time. The next day, investigators asked the Sovetsky District Court in Kazan to detain Kurmasheva for a month and a half. The request was not granted immediately. In court, on 20 October, the journalist remained detached, did not talk to the press, wore a mask and wore a hood over her head.
At the very beginning of the session, the investigator demanded that members of the press leave the court and that the hearings be held behind closed doors. This was supported by the prosecutor, Kurmasheva’s lawyer and the accused herself. Judge Mars Ganeev agreed and the hearing continued in camera.
However, he could not decide on how to proceed. Instead, he detained Kurmasheva for a further 72 hours. But just three days later, on 23 October, Judge Ganeev granted the investigator’s request in a closed session and detained Kurmasheva until December 5. Her lawyer, Edgar Matevosyan, told reporters that his client considered herself innocent and made no further comment.
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