The Russian government can interpret the espionage statute that led to the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich "any way they want," according to author and journalist David Satter.
Satter, former Moscow-based reporter who expelled from Russia in 2013, has written several books on the fall of the Soviet Union and the role of post-Soviet Russia. He believes it was a considerably different era that was "much freer" when he was kicked out of the country and that Gershkovich faces President Vladimir Putin’s vague espionage statute that could make consequences more severe.
"I was kicked out, I’m pretty sure, because of my interest in how Putin came to power. Putin came to power through a terrorist act against his own people; this was the bombing of the apartment buildings in 1999 and that was the one really taboo subject. It’s also the most important subject," Satter said Tuesday on "America’s Newsroom."
"I was involved with that in trying to learn about it, and I had written extensively about it, and that just became too much for them," he continued. "Even though, at that time, they were trying to create the impression that they didn’t expel Western correspondents."
Until he was abruptly arrested and charged with espionage last week, Gershkovich had been regularly traveling to Russia to put a spotlight on issues inside Putin’s country. Russian state news has reported that Gershkovich was ordered to be held in custody until May 29.
Substitute co-host Martha MacCallum pointed out that Putin has "kind of backed out of judicial reforms that were put into place after the fall of the Soviet Union," which means the judicial environment Gershkovich finds himself in doesn’t resemble the American system despite what surface-level claims. But Satter said he doesn’t think the Russian judicial system has ever been particularly fair.
"I wouldn’t exaggerate how much of a functioning, and fair, judicial system existed in Russia before Putin came to power. It’s been pretty lawless ever since the fall of the Soviet Union," Satter said. "Of course, when the Soviet Union existed, it was a dictatorship."
Satter believes the problem now is that Russia has "always" been free to interpret the espionage statute however it wants.
"The wording of the statute pretty much says anyone who conveys information damaging to Russia, to a foreign power – that can be interpreted to mean anyone who honestly reports on genuine social conditions and in a war-time situation, which we have now, they’re interpreting any way they want,’ he said. "They have not announced to anyone what they consider to be secret in Yekaterinburg, which is where Evan Gershkovich was arrested. It’s simply up to them to decide."
Satter said there have been previous cases where the Kremlin decided what someone was arrested for after an arrest was made.
"The city of Yekaterinburg is a military city, it’s full of military factories," Satter said. "If he went out and conducted normal journalistic interviews there with people to try and get the mood of the place, they can interpret that as espionage. There is nothing in the statute that would prevent them from doing that."
President Biden has called on Russia to release Gershkovich, and his administration has said it will do everything possible to bring him home, as well as imprisoned U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. The Wall Street Journal has also defended Gershkovich and called for his freedom.
"The Wall Street Journal demands the immediate release of our colleague, Evan Gershkovich, a distinguished journalist who was arrested while reporting in Russia. We know what’s going on in the world because of the fearless reporting of journalists like Evan. Evan’s case is a vicious affront to a free press, and should spur outrage in all free people and governments throughout the world. No reporter should ever be detained for simply doing their job," a Wall Street Journal spokesperson said.
Fox News’ David Rutz contributed to this report.