A Russian court on Friday ordered American Russian journalist Alsu Kurmasheva to remain in custody until February 5.
The editor for the Tatar-Bashkir Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, or RFE/RL, has spent 45 days in prison on accusations that she failed to register as a foreign agent. Kurmasheva denies the charge.
RFE/RL acting president Jeffrey Gedmin said in a statement that Kurmasheva’s “unjust, politically motivated detention has been extended,” and he called for Russia to free the journalist and grant her consular access under her rights as a U.S. citizen.
Kurmasheva had traveled to Russia in May for a family emergency. When she tried to leave, authorities confiscated her passports. Then, on October 18, she was arrested and accused of failing to register as a foreign agent.
Earlier this week, Kurmasheva’s husband, Pavel Butorin, spoke with VOA about her case and why he believes Russia is detaining his wife.
Butorin is the director of Current Time TV, a Russian-language TV and digital network led by RFE/RL in partnership with VOA.
He has called on the U.S. to designate Kurmasheva wrongfully detained, saying doing so will release other resources to help free her.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: There are a lot of repressions now against Russian journalists in Russia. What makes Alsu Kurmasheva’s case unique?
Pavel Butorin, Director of Current Time TV: It is no secret that reporting [on] Russia independently has become an endangered profession. But I think it’s especially dangerous now for American journalists to work inside Russia. I’m convinced that Alsu’s being targeted because she’s an American citizen and because she is a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
She is held in a cold prison cell exactly for that reason – because she had the courage to report on what’s going on inside Russia, what’s going on with ethnic minorities inside Russia.
VOA: What do you know about the conditions in the prison?
Butorin: Communication that we receive from Alsu is censored, so we cannot be certain that she receives the attention and the treatment that she deserves. We know that her prison cell is cold. Sometimes it gets overcrowded. It isn’t a pretrial detention facility, but it is a Russian jail.
She does send us letters that are upbeat and optimistic. Make no mistake. She is held by a penitentiary system that is notorious for its mistreatment of political prisoners. She shouldn’t be in that jail.
VOA: When she was first detained in June, she was released but then detained again. Why did they need such a scenario?
Butorin: Well, I can’t get into their heads, but I can only speculate that they were building a bigger case against Alsu.
She was first detained and charged for failure to report her American citizenship, which is now a criminal offense in Russia. They dragged this case out for several months, and eventually, in early October, a judge issued a relatively small fine.
But before she was able to pay the fine, they came after [her], arrested her and charged her for now with a more serious offense, with failure to register as a so-called foreign agent, an absurd charge that she denies.
VOA: In your opinion, is Alsu’s coverage of ethnic minorities and culture and language related to her case?
Butorin: I don’t have the details of her case, but it’s quite likely that her coverage of the plight of ethnic minorities in Russia has played a role in this.
Alsu is primarily a journalist, not necessarily an activist, but she has been a very strong proponent of and enthusiast for culture and the Tatar language. Honestly, I can’t think of another person who is as passionate about a culture as Alsu. She has been involved in, and you know, spreading awareness about her Tatar culture.
VOA: What is the most important thing to do to help Alsu right now?
Butorin: Right now, letters are really the biggest lifeline for Alsu in detention. She very much appreciates the support that she’s been receiving.
She receives a lot of letters from people that she doesn’t know, from complete strangers, who share their life stories with her and even recount movie plots. So that’s a big help.
But on the diplomatic front, we would like to see more involvement from the United States government and from other parties, as well from the European Union and from human rights organizations.
There is no doubt in my mind that the reason for her detention is her American citizenship and her work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
I think Alsu must be designated as a wrongfully detained person. I think she meets most, if not all, of the criteria.
This interview originated in VOA’s Russian Service.