Europe

Spanish journalist held in Poland on suspicion of pro-Russian espionage

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A freelance journalist from Spain is spending his 10th week in Polish custody while prosecutors there investigate what they claim is a case of espionage linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a case that raises red flags about press freedom in Europe at a time of war, prosecutors are expected next week to ask a judge for a further three-month extension to the detention of Pablo González, who has freelanced for media including Spain’s La Sexta TV channel, Spanish state news agency EFE and the US-government funded Voice of America.

The prosecutors’ request must be filed before 15 May, two weeks before his current three-month detention order expires. Under Polish law, González can be held in custody until he is put on trial, a process lawyers say could easily take more than a year.

Polish officials claim he is an agent of Russia’s infamous GRU military intelligence.

“He carried out operations for the benefit of Russia, profiting from his status of journalist, which enabled him to freely travel around the world and Europe, including military conflict zones,” according to a spokesperson for Poland’s minister coordinator of special services.

“Vast evidence has been secured, which now undergoes a detailed analysis,” the spokesperson said, adding that González faces 10 years in jail for taking part in “activities of foreign intelligence services against the Republic of Poland”.

Friends and family claim the allegations are absurd and have demanded González be tried or freed immediately. “I have no doubt he is not a spy,” said Juan Teixeira, a Spanish journalist who has travelled with him to many countries over a dozen years.

González, who was born in Russia and has joint Spanish and Russian nationality, was detained after agents from Poland’s internal security agency (ABW) knocked on his hotel door in the border town of Przemyśl shortly after midnight on 27 February.

He had been covering the refugee crisis and also planned to report from the Ukrainian side of the border.

González’s Polish lawyer, Bartosz Rogała, said he was well and had been visited by the Spanish consul.

His wife, Oihana Goiriena, complained that family letters and parcels had been delayed or not handed over. “They include drawings from his children,” she told the Guardian.

Goiriena said her husband made regular visits to see his father in Russia.

González’s two passports give him different names. His Russian passport bears his father’s surname Rubtsov and Pavlov, the Russian version of Pablo, while his Spanish passport bears his mother’s Spanish surname, González. Supporters fear this is seen as proof that he was using aliases.

That confusion arises because his parents divorced and his mother moved to Spain when González was a young boy, registering him under her surname. González’s maternal grandfather had been one of thousands of Spanish children evacuated to Russia during the Spanish civil war in 1936.

González speaks Russian, studied Slavic languages at university and specialises in the post-Soviet world, reporting mostly for Spanish outlets – often spending half or more of the year away from the home in Spain’s Basque country where his wife and three children live.

In 2016, González’s name appeared on a list reportedly drawn up by academic researchers of 49 Spanish journalists, politicians and activists whose Twitter comments were deemed “pro-Russian”.

“As someone who works on the ground in the Ukraine … that is a worry,” he said at the time.

He began to have problems reporting early in February, weeks before the invasion on 24 February, when Ukrainian authorities questioned him while he was waiting for a live link with La Sexta with military positions behind him.

He was told to report to the Ukrainian intelligence service in Kyiv, where he was advised to leave the country but not formally expelled.

González sought advice from the Spanish consulate then left for Poland. A few days later, agents from Spain’s centre for national intelligence (CNI) visited the family home near the town of Guernica and quizzed his wife.

“There was nothing aggressive about it and they did not come into the house,” she said. “They suggested that he might be pro-Russian. I don’t actually know what that means, after all a Russian national can be both pro-Russian and anti-Putin.”

When González heard about the visit, he returned to Spain. But when war broke out, he immediately left for Poland. “He’s a journalist. That’s how he makes his living,” said Goiriena. Friends said he also believed Ukraine would allow him back.

The Paris-based journalists’ NGO Reporters without Borders is watching closely.

“The Polish authorities must be more transparent about the evidence they hold against him, because so far information is scarce and detaining a journalist for months without trial is very serious,” a spokesperson said.

“Pablo González’s fundamental rights need to be respected in Poland, an EU democracy.”

González spent his 40th birthday in jail last month.

Rogała, González’s lawyer, said he would ask the court to release his client without charges or, at least, free him on bail next week. Hearings will be held behind closed doors.

 

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