U.S. must designate Alsu Kurmasheva as wrongfully detained in Russia

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Deputy Director of Advocacy

Alsu Kurmasheva, wearing a blue sweater and scarf, sits facing the camera and looking into the distance

Alsu Kurmasheva, an American journalist working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been wrongfully detained in Russia.

Deník N/Ludvík Hradilek, courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Russia is adding to its shameful tally of imprisoned American journalists with its detention of Alsu Kurmasheva, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. And there are simple steps the Biden administration can take -– but inexplicably hasn’t yet — to help her get home.

Kurmasheva, a dual U.S.-Russian citizen, was first prevented from leaving Russia in June, and she’s been imprisoned there since October. Russian authorities accuse her of failing to self-register under its “foreign agents” law. Kurmasheva is the second American journalist imprisoned in Russia this year, following the bogus espionage charges brought against Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in March.

Shortly after Russian security services arrested Gershkovich, the State Department appropriately designated him as “wrongfully detained.” That opened the door to additional U.S. resources dedicated to bringing Gershkovich home, including the involvement of the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken should also designate Kurmasheva as wrongfully detained, and quickly, just as he did Gershkovich. Kurmasheva’s case meets the criteria set under federal law that the State Department uses to determine a wrongful detention of a U.S. national by a foreign government, but it has yet to act.

The spurious charge against Kurmasheva shows that Russian authorities are retaliating against her for being an American and a journalist. The “foreign agents” law is infamous for its use to crack down on independent journalism and civil society.

Kurmasheva is also known for her reporting on the Tatar people — an ethnic minority in Russia that is under increasing scrutiny and pressure from the Russian government — and is likely being targeted for this and other reporting the Russian government dislikes. And, of course, the Russian government is no fan of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which Russia has also labeled a “foreign agent” and forced out of the country.

President Joe Biden and U.S. lawmakers should also publicly condemn Kurmasheva’s imprisonment and demand her immediate release. Biden has said that he’s “serious” about bringing home Americans held illegally in Russia and elsewhere, and he’s specifically commented on Gershkovich’s detention. But he has yet to publicly mention Kurmasheva’s case.

The president must make clear that this issue has his attention, and that the U.S. government won’t stand idly by while Russia repeatedly locks up American journalists.

In Congress, Rep. Michael McCaul, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has spoken out, as have several other lawmakers, but others have been silent. What are they waiting for?

Two so far this year is already far too many American journalists wrongfully detained in Russia. If the U.S. has any hope of keeping that number from growing in the future, it must use every method at its disposal to secure the release of both Kurmasheva and Gershkovich.

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