Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor with the Tatar-Bashkir service of U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and a dual U.S.-Russian citizen, has been in Russian detention since October 18, when authorities in the western city of Kazan charged her with failure to register herself as a foreign agent. If found guilty, Kurmasheva faces up to five years in prison.
Kurmasheva has been unable to leave Russia since traveling there for a family emergency on May 20. She was trying to return to the Czech Republic capital of Prague, where she lives with her husband and two daughters, on June 2, when she was detained at Kazan airport for several hours. Russian authorities confiscated her U.S. and Russian passports, fined her 10,000 rubles (US$105) for failing to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities, and banned her from leaving Russia. They detained her again on October 18.
CPJ spoke to Pavel Butorin, Kurmasheva’s husband and the Director of The Current Time, TV and digital platform of RFE/RL. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How are you and your children doing?
It’s certainly a very challenging and difficult time for our family. We have been without Alsu for more than five months now. Our family is quite strong. The girls are focusing on their education. They are getting the support and the help they need from their school, their friends, family friends. But again, it’s a very difficult time. The children want their mother back, and I want my wife back.
Can you share the latest on Alsu’s state?
As far as we know, she’s OK. We can pass messages to Alsu back and forth. Those messages are being censored [by the prison authorities]. The conditions aren’t great, it’s a Russian prison after all. She’s trying to form bonds with other inmates. She is a positive person. Trying to take care of her mental health as well. She has access to some books. But I’d like to be able to send her more books.
We’re a very athletic family. She’s a runner. They sometimes go for a run in a small prison yard. She has received a lot of letters even from people she doesn’t know. We know that people share their personal stories, send her poems. We try to keep her informed about what’s going on in the world. But our kids miss their mom. We want her back.
What was your reaction to her detention and the new charges? Did it come as a surprise?
It did come as a surprise that she was detained [because] she wasn’t traveling as a journalist.
It was a private visit – she was there for her elderly ailing mom.
When she was about to board a plane back home, [the authorities] seized her passport, interrogated her for several hours, released her but did not allow her to leave the country. This case went on for months and months and finally they issued a fine for not declaring that she was a U.S. citizen. That is now a criminal offense in Russia.
Alsu was aware of certain risks associated with her travel back to Russia, but she made a decision to go— she is a devoted daughter and needed to attend to a family situation.
The current case under which she’s detained is very different from the initial charge for which she was fined. The new charges are much more serious — she is accused of not registering with the Russian government as a so-called foreign agent. This is the law that Russia uses to punish critics of its policies. There’s a list of organizations and individuals that they say are foreign agents, who they say receive funding from abroad and engage in political activities. Alsu wasn’t even on that list. Alsu didn’t even know that she was supposed to self-register.
Obviously, Alsu is not an agent of any government. She is a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. As a journalist, she’s not working on behalf of the U.S. government or any government. RFE/RL is not a government agency. We receive U.S. funding but are editorially independent.
This is a wrongful detention and Alsu should be set free as soon as possible.
What do you think about the international reaction to Alsu’s detention? Many foreign governments, international organizations, and press freedom organizations like CPJ condemned the detention and called for Alsu’s release.
We very much appreciate all the strong statements from so many organizations, including yours. The more awareness we bring to this case the better it is for Alsu. We want to see stronger diplomatic reaction. We are hoping to see reaction from Turkey, [given] Alsu’s Turkic origins. Alsu is fluent in Turkish and is fond of Turkey. Also, we’d like to see reaction from other Islamic nations as Alsu is a practicing Muslim.
Can you tell us a little more about Alsu’s work as a journalist? She has been involved in different projects including one on preserving the Tatar language in Russia, which was praised by the authorities of Tatarstan.
Yes, she has dedicated her entire career to advancing Tatar culture and language through her journalism. She is a proud ethnic Tatar – a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Russia. For many years, Alsu was a radio journalist who spoke to listeners in Tatar in Tatarstan and around the world. In recent years, she has led a popular online Tatar-language project. As far as I know, even now in jail she is teaching Tatar to her cellmates.
But Alsu was in Russia in a private capacity, not on a reporting trip. She’s not an agent for any government.
Alsu is not the first U.S. journalist detained in Russia this year. Evan Gershkovich, a Moscow-based Wall Street Journal correspondent, has been in detention since March. The U.S. authorities recognized him as wrongfully detained. Is this something you are pursuing for Alsu?
We’re in touch with the U.S. government. We very much appreciate their attention to Alsu’s case. We’re looking for the United States to use all their resources, including that designation, to get Alsu out of Russia.
I know that [her] case has the attention of the State Department and we do appreciate the process that may eventually result in that designation.
Alsu is a proud American. We became American citizens by choice because we embrace the promise of personal freedom and freedom of speech. As a human being and an American citizen, Alsu is entitled to certain rights and her rights must be upheld by the Russian government. We should mount pressure on Russia to [achieve] her release. And I hope that Evan is released from detention and back with his family soon.
How did you break the news to your teenage daughters and how are they coping?
We have very strong children. For the first week, we were hesitant to share the news but now they are aware. We have received emotional support from many of our friends. I’m really blessed to share a household with strong, intelligent, free-thinking young women who are very athletic, doing sports, focusing on their education. They both play guitar. Fanatical about Taylor Swift – they know every word in Taylor Swift’s songs. I’m glad that our children are growing up as free people with a very strong sense of their rights. And it makes no sense to them that their mother is now languishing in a Russian prison just for being a journalist. They want their mother back.