Russia extends WSJ reporter's detention by three months, US demands release

FILE PHOTO: Moscow court hears appeal by WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich

(Reuters) -A Russian court on Tuesday extended for three months the pre-trial detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in March on espionage charges, which he and his employer deny.

The FSB security service arrested Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen, on March 29 in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg accusing him of collecting secrets about Russia's military industrial complex.

He was initially ordered held until May 29 and on Tuesday a court extended his detention until Aug. 30, Russian state-run news agency RIA reported, citing the court.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matt Miller in a briefing said representatives from the U.S. embassy in Moscow attended the hearing although they were unable to speak with the reporter. A CNN reporter tweeted that Gershkovich's parents were at the Lefortovo court in Moscow for the hearing. Miller said the State Department was aware that they visited Moscow, adding that the department did not help arrange their visit.

"He shouldn’t be detained at all. Journalism is not a crime. He needs to be released immediately," White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on CNN.

U.S. officials were pressing directly with Russia for consular access to Gershkovich, Kirby said.

"There is no grounds for denying consular access," he said.

If Gershkovich is convicted, the charges carry a possible 20-year prison sentence.

The Kremlin has said that Gershkovich, the first American journalist detained in Russia on espionage charges since the end of the Cold War, was caught "red-handed" but has provided no further details.

The Wall Street Journal repeated on Tuesday that accusations against him are "demonstrably false".

"While we expected there would be no change to Evan’s wrongful detention, we are deeply disappointed ... We continue to demand his immediate release," the newspaper said in a statement.

The Wall Street Journal did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for additional comment.

Gershkovich is being detained at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow are at the lowest point since the Cold War because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

The United States has called him "wrongfully detained," a term used by the State Department to deem the charges bogus and the arrest politically motivated.

Roger Carstens, the special U.S. envoy for hostage affairs, has said the administration would do "whatever it takes" to repatriate Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine who was convicted of spying charges in Russia in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in jail. Whelan, who had visited Russia previously and was working for a U.S.-based international auto parts maker at the time of his arrest, has denied the charges.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Rami Ayyub; additional reporting by Simon Lewis; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and Kevin Liffey; editing by Alex Richardson, Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool)