Russian court extends detention of American musician

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(NEW YORK) -- A Moscow court has extended the detention of Travis Leake, an American man detained by Russia on drug charges.

Heavily armed Russian police arrested Leake in early June at his apartment in Moscow, accusing him of selling narcotics. Leake, 51, had lived in Russia for more than a decade, working as an English teacher and as a musician in the country’s rock scene. He was detained along with a Russian woman, Valeria Grobanyuk.

Leake has denied the charges and a former colleague has suggested he may have been targeted by Russian authorities as an American.

At a hearing Thursday, a judge prolonged Leake’s pre-trial detention until Sept. 6.

Leake's detention comes amid ongoing concerns that Russia may seize U.S. citizens as political hostages to use as leverage, following a string of such cases. In March, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges, which the United States and dozens of international media outlets have denounced as fabricated.

WNBA star Brittney Griner, as well as two former Marines, Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, were also all detained on charges the U.S. said were spurious. Griner and Reed were later freed in prisoner swaps for Russians held by the U.S., while Whelan and Gershkovich remain in detention.

The U.S. and Kremlin last month confirmed they are in talks about a potential prisoner swap to free Gershkovich but so far have not found a clear path to a deal.

The U.S. has not designated Leake as wrongfully detained like Gershkovich and Whelan and has commented little on his detention.

In court on Thursday, Leake again denied the charges against him and pleaded with the U.S. to trade him if possible.

Speaking from inside a cage where defendants are kept, an agitated Leake told reporters he was enduring grim conditions in jail, denied proper food, toilet paper and other essentials, saying he has already suffered bronchitis twice because he was often being forced to sleep on the floor.

“They’re trying to kill me,” Leake shouted at the judge.

Leake currently had only a court-appointed attorney, who was not present at the hearing.

A representative from the U.S. embassy was also present in the court.

Leake, who speaks Russian, was the front man of his band Lovi Noch but had also worked with some well-known Russian rock bands that have been critical of Vladimir Putin’s government.

Dmitry Spirin, leader of the successful band, Tarakani, who spoke to ABC News shortly after Leake's arrest, said Leake had worked as a trainer with him on English-language performances. Spirin disbanded his group last year under pressure from the authorities after publicly criticizing the war in Ukraine and Putin’s regime.

In a decade of knowing Leake, Spirin said, he had never heard he was selling drugs and said he did not believe the charges against him. “Not 1%,” Spirin said.

The Russian government is “trying with all available means to one way or another detain, arrest Americans so as to fill up an [prisoner] exchange pool. So that it will be possible to blackmail the States,” Spirin said.

“In my view, it’s this standard practice that started already a few years ago with the basketball player, not long ago continued with the correspondent and now Travis has fallen foul of it,” he went on.

Leake appeared in a 2014 segment of the Anthony Bourdain show "Parts Unknown," filmed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the segment, Leake complained about political censorship and criticized the Russian government, alleging that an episode of an MTV series about dissident musicians in which he featured had been shelved under pressure from the authorities.

On Thursday, Leake told the court he had loved Russia.

“I spent a decade of my life trying to help the world not hate you guys but now you’ve made me hate you,” he said. “I didn’t do this to you.”


Friday, August 4, 2023 at 1:20PM by Patrick Reevell, ABC News Permalink