Mr. Harding, who has reported on the full range of Russia issues since arriving in Moscow in 2007, was detained at Domodedovo airport last Saturday as he attempted to reenter the country after spending two months in London working on the paper's WikiLeaks coverage.
According to Harding's Twitter feed, he was kept in a cell for 45 minutes with a group of other detainees, then placed aboard a flight to London and told "Russia is closed to you."
"Stopped at [passport] control, put in a locked cell and deported. No explanation given," Harding tweeted. "Extremely sad to leave Russia under these circumstances."
Rare even in Soviet times
According to the Guardian, two non-accredited British journalists have recently been blocked from entering Russia. One of them, Thomas de Waal, worked for many years in Moscow and is widely recognized expert on the North Caucasus but was refused entry in 2006. The last time an accredited British reporter was kicked out of the country, according to the Guardian, was when the Moscow correspondent for the Sunday Times was expelled in 1989. Nicholas Daniloff, US News & World Report correspondent arrested by the KGB in 1986, was held for two weeks before being forced out.
But even in Soviet times, this practice of kicking out journalists working on the staff of major international newspapers was quite rare and usually connected with some sort of diplomatic crisis. In some of those cases, it could be clearly seen that the journalist was being used as a pawn in a larger game.
It's not at all clear what's going on in Harding's case.
An unnamed source in Russia's security establishment told the official RIA-Novosti agency that Harding was blacklisted at the request of a particular security agency, which suggests he incurred the wrath of either the Federal Security Service (FSB), which deals with domestic matters, or the SVR external intelligence agency.
No official reason has been yet given for the expulsion of a foreign correspondent who was accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry and issued a visa to work as a journalist under international agreements signed by Russia.
In a statement, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger called the expulsion a "very troubling development with serious implications for press freedom ... it is worrying that the Russian government should now kick out reporters of whom they disapprove."
Harding's coverage of Russia included hard-hitting stories about terrorism and Russia's long-running counterinsurgency war in the north Caucasus – where he interviewed the family of a Dagestani suicide bomber – as well as the increasingly authoritarian drift of Russia under presidents Vladimir Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
The WikiLeaks connection
But Harding has suggested that his role as one of the Guardian's team of analysts tasked with assessing the WikiLeaks cables may have been particularly riling for official Moscow. While in Moscow he wrote about several controversial US embassy cables, including one that quoted a Spanish prosecutor as saying that Russia is "a virtual mafia state," and another that queried Mr. Putin's possible foreknowledge about the 2006 murder-by-radiation of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
"The Russians have been unhappy with my reporting for a while. But it seems WikiLeaks may have been the final straw," Harding tweeted Tuesday. He is coauthor of "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy."
But an unnamed official source quoted by the independent Interfax agency said Tuesday that Harding's journalistic work couldn't be the reason for his expulsion. "The reason for expelling him is not yet clear," the official said. "But whatever the British journalist wrote cannot be the reason for invoking such measures."
"Public opinion has a right to know what he did wrong, or what ethical rules he violated," Mr. Bogdanov says. "The Guardian is a respectable and well-regarded newspaper. This is probably the decision of some official who has no idea of what a journalist's job entails. If no explanation is forthcoming, then this is a violation of normal relations in a democratic society."
The head of the Kremlin's in-house human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, told journalists Tuesday that he will review Harding's case.
"We do not know yet why his visa was canceled," Mr. Fedotov said. "There must have been some very serious reasons for that .... The creation of favorable visa conditions for journalists is an obligation accepted by all member states of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and we should fulfill this obligation.
"Of course, there are issues of national security to take into account," he added.
Veteran Russian human rights activist, Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, says Russian authorities appear to be reviving Soviet-era practices of blaming the messenger.
"Judging by this case, we might soon be left without any foreign correspondents," she says. "Even in Soviet times, Moscow always had foreign journalists here," even if they had to work under tough conditions, she says.
Foreign Ministry's explanation
Late Tuesday the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Harding was expelled for "violating the rules of accreditation," a process that Russian officials take seriously. "He violated a number of rules governing the work of foreign correspondents [that] were approved by the Russian government in 1994 and which all journalists are well familiar with," the ministry statement said.
Normally, journalists receive an accreditation card from the Foreign Ministry after providing proof that they represent a legitimate news outlet. The document is treated as official ID in Russia, and the journalist receives his visa on the basis of it. Visas are always issued for exactly the same period – usually one year – for which the accreditation is valid.
The ministry statement suggested that Harding had failed to renew his accreditation before leaving for a London assignment last November, but failed to explain how Harding held a visa that was valid until May.
Other officials, anonymously quoted in the Russian media, have said that Harding may have failed to obtain special security permission required to travel to the "zone of counter-terrorist operations" in the north Caucasus.
The Guardian responds
In a response e-mailed to Moscow-based journalists Tuesday night – adding to the confusion surrounding Harding's expulsion – the Guardian said: "We are baffled by the statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry today. We have still not received an adequate explanation of why Luke Harding was deported on arrival at Moscow airport on Saturday February 5th, despite having a valid visa. Failure to collect his press card before leaving urgently on a trip to London is manifestly not a plausible reason for detaining Luke at the airport and refusing him entry to Russia. This is part of a pattern of behavior by the Russian Foreign Ministry who first expelled Luke Harding in November 2010. That expulsion was partially delayed after intervention by the British government, but it was understood that Luke would have to leave by May 2011. We did not make this public at the time but it discredits attempts to portray this week's expulsion as an administrative error."