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Russian court prolongs detention of RFE/RL journalist until October 23

Alsu Kurmasheva (Committee to Protect Journalists/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A Russian court has accepted a request by prosecutors to extend the detention of RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva after she was picked up earlier this week by police on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent.

The press service of the Sovetsky district Court of Kazan said Kurmasheva’s detention was extended by 72 hours, which would bring it to 1 p.m. Moscow time on October 23.

Wearing a black hooded jacket and a white COVID-style breathing mask, Kurmasheva sat in a glass box and waved during the hearing.

Kurmasheva — a journalist with RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service based in the Czech Republic, who holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenship — traveled to Russia for a family emergency in May.

She was temporarily detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2 at Kazan airport, where both of her passports were confiscated. She has not been able to leave Russia since as she awaited the return of her travel documents.

Authorities on October 11 fined Kurmasheva 10,000 rubles ($103) for failing to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities, according to local media reports based on court documents they’ve seen.

Kurmasheva was detained again on October 18 and charged this time with failing to register as a foreign agent, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

The Investigative Committee said that Kurmasheva is suspected of failing “to fulfill the obligation established by the legislation of the Russian Federation to submit to the authorized body documents necessary for inclusion in the register of foreign agents, committed by a person carrying out the targeted collection of information in the field of military, military-technical activities of the Russian Federation, whose receipt by foreign sources can be used against the security of the Russian Federation.”

It did not give any further details.

“We are concerned by the decision to prolong Alsu’s detention,” RFE/RL acting President Jeffrey Gedmin said. “Journalism is not a crime. She must be released to her family immediately.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Moscow was engaged in a campaign to persecute U.S. citizens. He did not comment further on Kurmasheva’s detention.

Russia’s detention of Kurmasheva, the second U.S. media member to be held by Moscow this year, triggered a wave of criticism from rights groups and politicians saying the move signals new level of wartime censorship.

Russia has been accused of detaining Americans to use as bargaining chips to exchange for Russians jailed in the United States. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested for allegedly spying — a charge he and the newspaper vehemently deny — in March.

Since 2012, Russia has used its so-called foreign agent laws to label and punish critics of government policies. It has also been increasingly used to shut down civil society and media groups in Russia since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“The persecution of Alsu Kurmasheva is an example of the relentless crackdown on journalism and the right to freedom of expression in Russia,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

“It also marks an alarming escalation in the harassment of media professionals, as it’s the first time this offence has been used to directly target a journalist for their professional activities, putting her at risk of a five-year imprisonment.”

The UN Human Rights Office, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the chairman of the U.S. House of Representative’s Foreign Affairs Committee also called for the immediate release of Kurmasheva.

The U.S. State Department said it was aware of reports that Kurmasheva had been arrested but it had not received official notification from Russia over the matter.

The foreign agent law allows authorities to label nonprofit organizations as “foreign agents” if they receive funding from abroad and are engaged in political activities.

RFE/RL says the law amounts to political censorship meant to prevent journalists from performing their professional duties and is challenging the authorities’ moves in Russian courts and at the European Court of Human Rights.

More than 30 RFE/RL employees have been listed as “foreign agents” by the Russian Justice Ministry in their personal capacity.

In March, a Moscow court declared the bankruptcy of RFE/RL’s operations in Russia following the company’s refusal to pay multiple fines totaling more than 1 billion rubles ($14 million) for noncompliance with the law.