The human rights group Memorial has recognized Alsu Kurmasheva, a veteran journalist of RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service who has been in Russian custody since October 18, as a political prisoner.
Kurmasheva, a Prague, Czech Republic-based journalist with RFE/RL who holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenships, traveled to Russia for a family emergency in May.
She was temporarily detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2 at the airport in the capital of the Tatarstan region, where both of her passports were confiscated. She was not able to leave Russia as she awaited the return of her travel documents.
On October 11, Kurmasheva was fined 10,000 rubles ($103) for failing to register her U.S. passport with the Russian authorities, according to local media reports based on court documents they’d seen.
Kurmasheva was detained again on October 18 and this time charged with failing to register as a “foreign agent,” a crime that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The Investigative Committee said Kurmasheva was being charged under a section of the Criminal Code that refers to the registration of foreign agents who carry out “purposeful collection of information in the field of military, military-technical activities of Russia,” which, if received by foreign sources, “can be used against the security of the country.”
It gave no further details.
The Investigative Committee said its investigation found that while the Russian Justice Ministry did not add her to the list of foreign agents, she failed to provide documents to be included on the registry.
Kurmasheva and RFE/RL have both rejected the charge.
Russia’s detention of Kurmasheva, the second U.S. media member to be detained by Moscow this year, triggered a wave of criticism from rights groups and politicians saying the move signals a new level of wartime censorship.
Sergei Davidis, the leader of Memorial’s Support of Political Prisoners project, told RFE/RL that Kurmasheva was recognized as a political prisoner because the group considers illegal the Russian Criminal Code’s article on foreign agents and its connection with so-called “purposeful collection of information in the field of military, military-technical activities of Russia.”
Davidis added that Memorial considered the prosecution and possible conviction of people for failing to carry out “a so-called obligation to voluntarily declare themselves as foreign agents…also illegal.”
“That request is illegal because, de facto, it is not about punishment for failure to declare, but for implementation of legal activities. The information in question is not classified and it is not illegal to collect such information,” Davidis said, stressing that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had given a vague explanation about what can be considered information banned for collecting.
“Additional to that, we see concrete political goals in [Kurmasheva’s] case that were obvious by how the persecution was carried out. First, she was detained and convicted of failure to declare the second citizenship, and after that only, after obvious thinking over and looking for reasons — they filed the second case,” Davidis said.
“This is the first criminal case and arrest of that kind. It explicitly indicates the artificial grounds of the whole construction. This illegal charge was thought over for a long time before it was used. They had searched for something to deprive Alsu Kurmasheva of her freedom,” he added.
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 alleged spying — a charge he and the newspaper vehemently deny — in March.
WATCH: The husband of the RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who was detained in Russia on October 18, has said she is a “political prisoner.”
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.
Amnesty International, the UN Human Rights Office, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the chairman of the U.S. House of Representative’s Foreign Affairs Committee have called for the immediate release of Kurmasheva.
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.
Memorial, founded in 1987 to remember victims of Soviet repression, was closed down by Russia’s Supreme Court in November 2021 — citing the “foreign agents” law — although it still functions outside the country and has managed to continue some activities inside Russia.
Kurmasheva is one of four RFE/RL journalists — Andrey Kuznechyk, Ihar Losik, and Vladyslav Yesypenko are the other three — currently imprisoned on charges related to their work. Rights groups and RFE/RL have called repeatedly for the release of all four, saying they have been wrongly detained.
Losik is a blogger and contributor for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service who was convicted in December 2021 on several charges including the “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order” and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Kuznechyk, a web editor for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, was sentenced in June 2022 to six years in prison following a trial that lasted no more than a few hours. He was convicted of “creating or participating in an extremist organization.”
Yesypenko, a dual Ukrainian-Russian citizen who contributed to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, was sentenced in February 2022 to six years in prison by a Russian judge in occupied Crimea after a closed-door trial. He was convicted of “possession and transport of explosives,” a charge he steadfastly denies.