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'It's All Becoming Less Bearable': RFE/RL Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva Marks 100 Days In Russian Custody

Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan in December 2023.
Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan in December 2023.

Alsu Kurmasheva receives letters in jail -- from family, friends, colleagues, and strangers -- but sometimes it takes weeks for them to reach her in pretrial detention in the Russian city of Kazan. On January 13, the RFE/RL journalist wrote, she received a large packet of letters after a long hiatus over the winter holidays.

"It was very hard for me without them," she wrote. "To be honest, it’s all becoming slowly but surely less bearable."

January 25 marks 100 days since Kurmasheva's arrest in October, and she has been in custody ever since.

"Even one day unjustly behind bars is a tragedy," acting RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said, "but a U.S. citizen wrongfully held in a Russian prison for 100 days is outrageous."

Kurmasheva was initially charged with failing to ask the Russian government to register her as a "foreign agent" and, two months later, she was charged with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

The "foreign agent" charge carries a maximum prison term of five years, while the second charge is punishable by up to 10 years. Kurmasheva and RFE/RL deny the allegations and say Moscow is punishing her for her journalistic work.

A dual U.S.-Russian citizen, Kurmasheva has not been granted consular access in jail. Russia has denied three U.S. requests to visit her in detention.

"Russia should grant her unconditional and immediate release," Capus said. "We hope the U.S. State Department will quickly designate Alsu as 'wrongfully detained.'"

While that has not happened, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on January 18 the United States was paying "an enormous amount of attention" to Kurmasheva's case.

"Just because we have not made a 'wrongful detention' determination at any point does not indicate anything about the work that we are doing or about what our future posture may be," Miller added. "We are constantly gathering information in all these cases, assessing facts, assessing law in us to what ultimately will be the right determination."

In a similar case, U.S. citizen Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was detained in Russia on March 29, 2023, on suspicion of espionage, the first time a journalist working for a U.S. media company was arrested on such charges in Russia since the Cold War.

He was formally charged on April 7. The U.S. State Department designated Gershkovich "wrongfully detained" on April 10, and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracey met with him in jail for the first time on April 17.

Gershkovich, one of the few foreign journalists who continued to work inside Russia following Moscow’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, remains in custody amid speculation the Kremlin wants to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

"I am certain that the real reason Alsu is in pretrial detention is because she is an American citizen," said Pavel Butorin, Kurmasheva’s husband and the head of Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

Calls For Release

Western governments and Russian and international rights groups have criticized Kurmasheva’s detention. The Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the International Press Institute, and others have called for her release. The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., has placed her portrait in its lobby and has urged the State Department to "declare unjust detention now."

The human rights group Memorial, which has been banned in Russia, has designated her a political prisoner.

In December, European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell called for her "immediate release" and called on Russia to "ensure the safety of journalists…and stop prosecuting them."

The U.K.-based Rights In Russia group has organized a mechanism for writing letters to Kurmasheva and others widely considered political prisoners.

"One hundred days is unacceptable," acting RFE/RL President Capus said. "And, unfortunately, we don't see an end to this anytime soon. That is why we think everything must be done."

'What Have We Done Today?'

Kurmasheva, who has worked for RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service for some 25 years, left her home in Prague in mid-May 2023 to attend to a family emergency in Russia's Tatarstan region, where her elderly mother lives.

On June 2, she was prevented from leaving the country, and her U.S. and Russian passports were confiscated. On October 18, she was taken into custody and placed in Kazan’s SIZO No. 2 pretrial detention facility, where she has been held for the last 100 days.

She has been able to exchange letters with family and supporters through Russia’s censored prison-mail system, Zonatelekom. Her colleagues in Prague have been able to subscribe her to several newspapers and magazines.

"As of today, it has been exactly three months," she wrote to supporters on January 18. "Everything has changed. I have changed. You have changed. Your letters have changed. After a long pause, I received dozens of letters that you wrote over the holidays. They are so candid. You entrusted me with your fears."

"You decided not to give up on everything, but to share with me while others were finishing their olivye," she wrote, referring to a salad that is a traditional staple of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Russia. "That is priceless."

In the same letter, she mused about why she returned to Russia despite the relentless clampdown on dissent under President Vladimir Putin. Kremlin critics say the state's efforts to crush civil society and silence independent voices have been growing for years and intensified still further since Russia unleashed the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

"You marvel at my courage for returning home at 'such a time,'" Kurmasheva wrote. "But we live now; we won’t have any 'other' time. Rather, there will be time, of course, but perhaps someone precious to us, someone who needs our help today, won't be there."

"I am responsible for my family. For my young children and for my elderly mother. In my life, and in yours, January 18, 2024, will not come again," she wrote. "What have we done today?"

Kurmasheva suggested that when it comes to helping people, what goes around comes around.

"All my life, people have opened doors for me. And later, I began opening doors -- at first for my children and those close to me and later for those who needed my help and support," she wrote. "Now I understand that opening doors for others is a responsibility."

In a message sent shortly before the New Year, Kurmasheva wrote about an "extraordinary letter" she received from a young woman from southern Russia.

"A couple of weeks before, she had been in Kazan visiting friends," Kurmasheva wrote. "She really likes it here and visits a couple times a year. Her friends told her about me -- apparently more than they are reporting in official media. She wrote that she 'felt a strong desire to change my ticket and leave' and that she 'didn’t think such a thing could happen in a beloved city.' Later, on the train, she wrote me a long letter. Such unlikely stories, and so much goodness just around the corner from evil."

'Inhumane' Conditions

Because of the censorship rules governing her correspondence from custody, Kurmasheva must be circumspect in describing her conditions, prison staff, other prisoners, and the like.

In early January, she spent two weeks in a cell without many basic conveniences such as a table or refrigerator. "The conditions in those two weeks were inhumane," she wrote on January 9. "I can't even describe it."

"Things are a bit better now," she wrote, but added, "Everyone is sick, but no one cares."

When Kurmasheva herself fell ill, she asked the prison medic to examine her and was told: "There is no point. I can't do anything anyway."

The medic explained that he lacked even basic medicines to give to prisoners. After reluctantly examining her throat, he advised her to "gargle with salt water," Kurmasheva wrote in a letter on January 8.

Also in early January, Kurmasheva wrote that over the New Year holiday, she watched a version of The Count Of Monte Cristo -- the revenge tale of an unjustly accused and imprisoned person -- on the television in her cell. She was also able to watch the 1973 Czechoslovakian-East German classic Three Nuts For Cinderella, as well as a Russian music-video channel.

"I spent two days trying to fix the black-and-white image to color, but it looks like I'll just have to make do," she wrote.

'Worst Jailers Of Journalists'

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.

RFE/RL's jailed journalists (left to right): Alsu Kurmasheva, Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk, and Vladyslav Yesypenko
RFE/RL's jailed journalists (left to right): Alsu Kurmasheva, Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk, and Vladyslav Yesypenko

Losik is a blogger and contributor to 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.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Belarus and Russia are among the "worst jailers of journalists" in the world. As of December 1, 2023, 28 journalists were in custody in Belarus and 22 in Russia.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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