President Biden has called for the release of Evan Gershkovich, an American Wall Street Journal reporter imprisoned in Russia, praising his courage and saying the United States was working tirelessly to bring him home.
Mr. Gershkovich was detained in Russia last month and accused of espionage, a charge that his employer and the United States emphatically reject. The State Department this month designated the journalist as “wrongfully detained,” signifying that the U.S. government sees him as the equivalent of a political hostage.
In a speech at the annual White House Association Correspondents’ dinner on Saturday, Mr. Biden spoke of Mr. Gershkovich’s “absolute courage” and said everyone at the event stood with the reporter.
“We’re working every day to secure his release, looking at opportunities and tools to bring him home. We keep the faith,” Mr. Biden said told the audience. “Our message is this: Journalism is not a crime.”
Mr. Gershkovich’s case represents the most significant attack on international journalists in Russia since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year. It is also the first time that a Western journalist in Russia has been charged with espionage since the end of the Cold War.
In his speech on Saturday, Mr. Biden asserted the importance of a free press worldwide and also spoke of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who disappeared in Syria in August 2012, soon after the country’s civil war began. It is believed that, since then, he has been held captive by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“Evan and Austin should be released immediately along with every other American held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad,” Mr. Biden said. Debra and Marc Tice, the parents of Mr. Tice, wrote an opinion article, published in The Washington Post last August, in which they urged Mr. Biden to step up diplomatic efforts to free him.
Mr. Biden also called for the release of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia on what the United States says are fabricated charges of espionage, and addressed Brittney Griner, a W.N.B.A. star who was freed in a prisoner swap in December after being detained for nearly 10 months in Russia. He said that he was looking forward to seeing Ms. Griner, who was in attendance at the dinner, play basketball professionally again.
U.S. officials are concerned that the arrest and charges against Mr. Gershkovich, 31, signal an even more severe Kremlin crackdown on independent news outlets and the free flow of information within Russia. This month, in another escalation, a Moscow court sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Kremlin critic and Washington Post contributor, to 25 years in prison, an unusually harsh sentence that is longer than what is often given for murder.
Mr. Gershkovich appeared in court in Moscow on April 18, the first time he had been seen in public since being detained. At the hearing, a judge denied Mr. Gershkovich’s appeal to lift his pretrial detention. Mr. Gershkovich was ordered back to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.
After the ruling, one of Mr. Gershkovich’s lawyers, Maria Korchagina, told reporters that he was ready to “assert his right for free journalism” and “to defend himself.”
Fighting for Bakhmut’s ‘road of life’
Despite intense fighting, Russian forces have so far failed to capture a supply route that is key for Ukraine’s defense of the beleaguered city of Bakhmut, the spokesman for the eastern group of Ukraine’s army said on Saturday.
Keeping the route open between Bakhmut and the town of Chasiv Yar, a few miles to the west, has been crucial for Ukraine in its campaign to hold onto the eastern city in the face of a Russian onslaught that began last summer. The battle for Bakhmut has seen some of the fiercest fighting on the eastern front and both sides have sustained heavy casualties.
“For several weeks now, Russians have been talking about seizing the ‘road of life’, as well as about constant fire control over it,” the spokesman, Serhiy Cherevatyi, said, referring to the supply road.
“Yes, it is indeed difficult there, because their attempts to seize the road continue, as well as attempts to establish fire control,” he added in comments to a Ukrainian news website, but said Russian forces have been unable to cut off the logistics route. Two roads lead west from Bakhmut. One goes to Chasiv Yar, while a second leads to the town of Kostyantynivka.
Once home to around 70,000 people, Bakhmut is now mostly ruined. Though its strategic value is debatable, the city carries symbolic importance for both sides, which have sought to exhaust and bog down each other’s forces.
Deadly cross-border shelling
The governor of Russia’s Bryansk region said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces shelled a village close to the border between the two countries overnight, killing four people and partially destroying a residential building.
The deaths occurred when Ukraine struck the village of Suzemka with multiple rockets, the governor, Alexander Bogomaz, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app. He said that two other people were injured. His claims could not be independently verified but were the latest in a series of reported attacks in border regions of Russia.
The village of Suzemka is just a few miles from Sumy, a region in northeastern Ukraine that has frequently been the target of cross-border shelling in recent months.
The Ukrainian military administration in Sumy said on Sunday that Russian forces had fired a total of 57 shells that landed in nine different communities in the region and damaged at least one residential building. One town, Seredyna Buda, lies right on the Russian border.