PRAGUE (AP) — This wasn’t how Pavel Butorin expected to celebrate the anniversary of 21 years together with his wife, with her in a Russian prison and barely any communication available.
Russian-American journalist Alsu Kurmasheva — who works as an editor for Radio Free Europe, funded by the U.S. government — has been detained in Russia for almost a month, charged with failing to self-register as a “foreign agent.”
“Alsu should be celebrating this anniversary with me and our children at home, not in a Russian prison,” a visibly shaken Butorin told The Associated Press in an interview in Prague on Friday. “We want her back. Alsu must be released as soon as possible.”
Kurmasheva was detained on Oct 18, becoming the second U.S. journalist detained in Russia this year, after Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges in March. She is being held in a detention center, awaiting a trial that could sentence her to up to five years in prison.
Her ordeal began in May when she decided to travel to Russia’s Tatarstan to see her ailing elderly mother for what was supposed to be a short trip. On June 2, she was about to board a return plane for home at Kazan International Airport when she was temporarily detained. Both her passports and her phone were seized and she was fined for failing to register her U.S. passport with the Russian authorities.
“But before Alsu was able to pay the fine that was eventually issued, she was charged with a much more serious offense, and that is failure to register as a foreign agent,” Butorin said.
The state-run news website Tatar-Inform said Kurmasheva faces charges of failing to register as a “foreign agent” and was collecting information on Russian military activities “in order to transmit information to foreign sources.”
Russia uses the legal term, which carries additional scrutiny and strong pejorative connotations, to label and punish critics of its official policies.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called the charges against Kurmasheva “spurious,” saying her detention “is yet more proof that Russia is determined to stifle independent reporting.”
Butorin said his wife didn’t travel to Russia as a journalist and was doing no reporting work there.
“Alsu was well aware of the risks that were associated with a possible trip to Russia,” Butorin added. ”But she is a devoted daughter.”
He said he believed his wife was imprisoned “because she is a journalist with Radio Free Europe and she is an American citizen.”
Kurmasheva reported on ethnic minority communities in the Tatarstan and Bashkortostan republics in Russia, including projects to protect and preserve the Tatar language and culture despite “increased pressure” on Tatars from Russian authorities, her employer said.
Independent media and journalists in Russia have faced immense pressure after the Kremlin sent troops to Ukraine in February 2022. The authorities adopted a law criminalizing “spreading false information” about the Russian army.
Analysts have pointed out that Moscow may be using jailed Americans as bargaining chips after U.S.-Russia tensions soared when Moscow sent troops into Ukraine in 2022. At least two U.S. citizens arrested in Russia in recent years — including WNBA star Brittney Griner — have been exchanged for Russians jailed in the U.S.
Russia hasn’t informed U.S. authorities of her detention whereabouts and she has not been granted consular access, Butorin said.
The only means of communication with Kurmasheva is through passing “notes to her. We know that those notes are being censored,” Butorin said without giving further details.
He said he doesn’t have much information about Alsu’s indictment but what he knows is that it’s quite cold in her cell.
He was grateful for the U.S. State Department’s approach to the case.
“I do hope that the United States government uses every avenue and every means available to it, including the designation of Alsu as a wrongfully detained person to ensure her speedy release from Russian detention.”
“We want Alsu to know that she’s not alone,” Butorin said. “We want her to know that we will get her out of there and no effort is being spared to get her release as soon as possible.”
However, the family has a tough time coping with the situation.
“We have young daughters, but they’re very strong,” Butorin said. “But they miss their mother. They want her back.”
Daria Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.