U.S. condemns reported arrest of former U.S. mission employee in Russia

FILE PHOTO: A view shows Lefortovo pre-trial detention centre in Moscow

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday it "strongly condemns" the reported arrest of Robert Shonov, a former employee of the United States' mission in Russia, calling allegations he illegally collaborated with foreigners "wholly without merit."

Russian state news agency TASS reported on Monday that Shonov had been detained in the far eastern city of Vladivostok but was being held in Moscow's Lefortovo prison, usually reserved for serious crimes including espionage.

Shonov, a Russian national, was employed by the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok for more than 25 years until Russia in 2021 ordered the termination of the U.S. mission's local staff, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement on Tuesday.

At the time of his arrest Shonov was employed by a company contracted to provide services to the U.S. embassy in Moscow and his role was to compile summaries of Russian media reports, Miller said, adding that this arrangement complied with Russia's laws and regulations.

"His being targeted under the 'confidential cooperation' statute highlights the Russian Federation’s blatant use of increasingly repressive laws against its own citizens," Miller said.

Russia's embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

TASS on Monday cited a law enforcement agency source as saying that "after interrogation, Shonov was charged with committing a crime under Article 275.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation ('Cooperation on a confidential basis with a foreign state, international or foreign organization')", punishable by up to eight years' jail.

The U.S. consulate in Vladivostok has been closed since December 2020, amid fraught relations between Washington and Moscow, which worsened further after Moscow's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

In late March, the FSB detained Evan Gershkovich, a U.S. journalist for the Wall Street Journal, on charges of spying, a move that the White House called ridiculous and illegal.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Katharine Jackson and Jasper Ward; Editing by Daniel Wallis)