Free Alsu Kurmasheva
Alsu Kurmasheva: RFE/RL Journalist Detained in Kazan, Russia
On October 18, 2023, Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist for RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service was detained by Russian authorities. She holds U.S. and Russian citizenship and lives in Prague, Czech Republic, with her husband and children. She has been charged with failure to self-register as a foreign agent. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. Alsu traveled to Russia for a family emergency on May 20. She was temporarily detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2. Authorities confiscated Alsu’s passports, preventing her from leaving the country. She was awaiting the return of her passports when she was detained again on October 18.
On October 23, a Kazan court placed Alsu in pre-trial detention until December 5. Alsu’s arrest represents the most egregious use of Russia’s foreign agent laws against a journalist. On December 1, Alsu's pre-trial detention was extended until February 5, 2024. Her family calls on the U.S. government to designate her as “wrongfully detained.”
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Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Who is Alsu Kurmasheva?
A: Alsu Kurmasheva is a journalist with the Tatar-Bashkir Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). She was detained in Kazan, Russia on October 18. She holds U.S. and Russian citizenship and lives in Prague, Czech Republic, with her husband and two children.
Q: Why did Alsu travel to Russia? Why hasn’t she been permitted to leave?
A: Kurmasheva traveled to Russia for a family emergency on May 20. She was temporarily detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2. Authorities at Kazan airport confiscated her U.S. and Russian passports, preventing her from leaving the country. She was subsequently fined 10,000 rubles ($103) for failure to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities. While still waiting for the return of her passports, and before she could pay the fine, Kurmasheva was detained again on October 18 for failing self-register as a “foreign agent.”
Q: What are the charges against Alsu? How serious are they?
A: On October 18, Alsu was charged under Article 330.1(3) of the Russian Criminal Code for failing to self-register as a “foreign agent.” If found guilty, she could face up to five years’ imprisonment.
Q: Has the Russian government designated Alsu as a “foreign agent”?
A: No. Alsu is not among dozens of RFE/RL journalists who have been designated as “foreign agents” by the Russian government. However, Article 330.1(3) of the Russian Criminal Code now requires Russian citizens to self-register as foreign agents if they engage in the "targeted collection" of information that could harm Russia's national security if provided to foreign sources. The article is written so broadly that even individuals collecting publicly available information could be required to self-register as “foreign agents.” “Alsu Kurmasheva’s arrest is the most egregious instance to date of the abusive use of Russia’s foreign agents’ legislation against independent press,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Q: Has RFE/RL or any of its journalists been designated as “foreign agents” in Russia?
A: Russia’s foreign agent law was extended to cover the media on November 25, 2017. Ten days later, the Ministry of Justice designated eight RFE/RL news services as “foreign agents,” including the Tatar-Bashkir Service, which Alsu works for. While dozens of RFE/RL journalists have been designated as individual foreign agents, Alsu Kurmasheva has not.
Q: How is Russia using foreign agent laws against journalists and other civil society members?
A: Since 2012, Russia has used foreign agent laws to punish perceived government critics who receive funding from abroad or are deemed to be “under foreign influence,” including civil society groups, media outlets, independent journalists, and activists. “Alsu Kurmasheva’s arrest is the most egregious instance to date of the abusive use of Russia’s foreign agents’ legislation against independent press,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Q: What has RFE/RL said about Alsu’s detention?
A: Responding to news of Kurmasheva’s detention on October 18, RFE/RL acting President Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin said: “Alsu is a highly respected colleague, devoted wife, and dedicated mother to two children. She needs to be released so she can return to her family immediately.”
Following the extension of Kurmasheva’s detention by 72 hours on October 20, RFE/RL acting President Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin said: “We are concerned by the decision to prolong Alsu’s detention. Journalism is not a crime. She must be released to her family immediately.”
In response to a Kazan court’s decision to place Kurmasheva in pre-trial detention on October 23, RFE/RL acting President Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin said: "We are deeply disappointed by the outcome of today's hearing. We call for Alsu's immediate release so she can be reunited with her family.”
Following the extension of Kurmasheva’s pre-trial detention by two months on December 1, 2023, RFE/RL acting President Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin said: “Alsu has spent 45 days behind bars in Russia and, today, her unjust, politically-motivated detention has been extended. We call on Russian authorities to immediately grant Alsu consular access, which is her right as a U.S. citizen. Alsu must be released and reunited with her family.”
Q: Where is Kurmasheva being held?
A: Kurmasheva is being held at the SIZO-2 pre-trial detention center in Kazan, Russia. It is located centrally. Temperatures in Kazan are already below freezing.
Q: Does Alsu have access to legal representation?
A: Yes. She has access to her lawyer.
Q: Are Russian authorities allowing Alsu to communicate with her family?
A: Kurmasheva is able to exchange letters, although these are censored by the prison authorities. She is not permitted visits or phone calls with family members at this time.
Q: Are the Russian authorities permitting consular access to Alsu?
A: On November 14, the U.S. State Department said it requested consular access to Kurmasheva, but Russian authorities have not responded yet.
Q: Has the Russian government made any official statements regarding Alsu’s detention?
A: When asked about Alsu’s case at a press briefing on October 20, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Kremlin was not following it.
Q: Has the U.S. government made any official statements regarding Alsu’s detention?
A: On October 19, the U.S. State Department said it was aware of reports that Kurmasheva was detained but it had not received official notification from Russia over the matter. On October 23, the U.S. State Department said it requested consular access to Kurmasheva, but that it has not been granted yet. On November 1, the U.S. State Department said it was focused on securing consular access to Kurmasheva. On November 14, the U.S. State Department said Russian authorities have not yet responded to its request for consular access.
Numerous U.S. lawmakers have condemned Alsu’s detention and called for her release.
Q: How has the international community responded to Alsu’s detention?
A: Kurmasheva’s detention has been condemned by the governments of Canada, Czech Republic, France, Poland, and Sweden, as well as by the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the President of the European Parliament, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Council of Europe’s Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists has issued an alert calling for Kurmasheva’s release. A joint statement by U.S. Ambassador to the EU Mark Gitenstein and European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová said Kurmasheva is “wrongfully detained.”
Q: How have human rights and media freedom organizations responded to Alsu’s detention?
A: International human rights and media freedom organizations have condemned Kurmasheva’s politically-motivated detention and called for her immediate release, including Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, PEN America, Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists, and the International Press Institute. The Committee to Protect Journalists said “Alsu Kurmasheva’s arrest is the most egregious instance to date of the abusive use of Russia’s foreign agents’ legislation against independent press.” The Freedom of the Press Foundation and the National Press Club have urged the U.S. government to immediately designate Kurmasheva as “wrongfully detained.” On November 28, 2023, 14 civil society groups, wrote to Secretary Blinken to urge him to swiftly declare that Kurmasheva has been “wrongfully detained.” On November 30, 2023, leading Russian human rights group Memorial declared Kurmasheva a political prisoner and called for her release.
Q: Has the U.S. government designated Kurmasheva as “wrongfully detained?”
A: No. When asked about the status of the “wrongfully detained” designation for Kurmasheva on November 14, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said, “Every circumstance is different. We look at each of these and try to make a determination as quickly as we can, but we have to gather all the appropriate facts before making a determination.”
Q: Is Kurmasheva’s family calling on the U.S. government to designate her as “wrongfully detained?”
A: Yes. Kurmasheva’s husband Pavel Butorin told the Associated Press that he believes she is imprisoned “because she is a journalist with Radio Free Europe and she is an American citizen,” and added, “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.” RFE/RL supports Butorin’s call, which has been echoed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the National Press Club. On November 28, 2023, 14 civil society groups, wrote to Secretary Blinken to urge him to swiftly declare that Kurmasheva has been “wrongfully detained.”
Q: When did Alsu start working for RFE/RL?
A: Alsu joined RFE/RL in 1998 as a radio program moderator.
Q: What was Alsu reporting on prior to her detention?
A: Alsu is an accomplished journalist who has long covered cultural and human rights issues affecting ethnic minority communities in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Volga-Ural region of Russia. She has reported on initiatives to protect and preserve the Tatar language and culture from Russian authorities, who have exerted increased pressure on Tatars in recent years. In 2018, Alsu led the launch of RFE/RL’s highly popular Tatar language educational project, Eyde!Online, in response to the Russian government’s crackdown on minority languages.
Alsu has also reported extensively on gender issues, leading reporting projects on domestic violence and women’s human rights. In 2022, she led the "Not Just A Woman's Business" project mapping domestic violence across Russia. The project featured interviews with victims of domestic violence as well as women human rights activists.
RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service is the only major international news provider reporting in the Tatar and Bashkir languages to audiences in the Russian Federation’s multiethnic, Muslim-majority Volga-Ural region. Since 1953, the Service, known locally as Radio Azatliq, and its Russian-language reporting unit Idel.Realities, have provided an important and innovative alternative to government-controlled media.
Q: How has the Russian government targeted RFE/RL in the past?
A: RFE/RL has been targeted by the Soviet and Russian governments since the first broadcasts of Radio Liberation in 1953. The initial era of post-Soviet openness in the 1990s led to RFE/RL programs being forced off domestic radio stations and cable networks during the 2000s. Since 2017, over 30 RFE/RL journalists and ten services and reporting projects, including the Tatar-Bashkir Service and Idel.Realities project, have been smeared as “foreign agents.”
Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities launched a forced bankruptcy case against RFE/RL for its refusal to pay multiple fines totaling $17 million levied under Russia’s so-called "foreign agent" law. RFE/RL was forced to suspend in-country operations in March 2022 and was formally declared bankrupt a year later.
RFE/RL journalists often experience harassment by the Russian authorities.
Q: Are there other RFE/RL journalists who are currently imprisoned?
A: Yes. Three other RFE/RL journalists are unfairly imprisoned: Ihar Losik and Andrey Kuznechyk in Belarus, and Vladyslav Yesypenko in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Ihar Losik is a blogger and freelance contributor for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. He was detained in June 2020 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He has been held incommunicado since February 2023.
Andrey Kuznechyk is a web editor for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. He was detained in November 2021 and sentenced to six years in prison over extremism charges.
Vladyslav Yesypenko is a contributor for Crimea.Realities, a reporting project of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. In March 2021, he was detained by FSB officers in Russian-occupied Crimea. He is currently serving a 5-year sentence over false explosives charges.
Q: How can I stay informed?
A: There are many ways to stay informed on Alsu's case and RFE/RL's other imprisoned journalists.
- Subscribe to the "Journalists in Trouble" newsletter, which provides updates on RFE/RL's imprisoned journalists and other threats against press freedom in our broadcast region.
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Q: What can I do to help?
Journalists in Trouble
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