U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday he has “no doubt” that Russia has wrongfully detained an American reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was arrested last week on spying allegations.
However, Blinken said a formal determination of Evan Gershkovich's wrongful detention has not yet been made, something that would elevate the priority of his case within the U.S. government. Blinken said the legal process for such a determination would be completed soon.
“In Evan’s case, we are working through the determination on wrongful detention and there’s a process to do that and it’s something that we’re working through very deliberately, but expeditiously as well," he said. “And I’ll let that process play out.”
“In my own mind, there’s no doubt that he’s being wrongfully detained by Russia and that’s exactly what I said to Foreign Minister (Sergey) Lavrov when I spoke to him over the weekend and insisted that Evan be released immediately," Blinken told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "But I want to make sure, as always, because there is a formal process that we go through it and we will and I expect that to be completed soon.”
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In what was a rare call with Lavrov since Russia invaded Ukraine early last year, Blinken also urged him to immediately release another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, who had already been determined to have been wrongfully detained.
When the U.S. government formally designates an American as wrongfully detained, it shifts supervision of the person’s case to a specialized State Department section — the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs — that is focused on negotiating for the release of captives.
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The designation empowers the government to use a variety of tools, including diplomacy, to secure the release of a captured American rather than simply waiting for a criminal case to make its way through the system.
“From my perspective, from the department’s perspective there is no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens around the world," Blinken said Wednesday.
Lawyers for Gershkovich, the son of immigrants from the Soviet Union who grew up speaking Russian at home in Princeton, New Jersey, have appealed his arrest. The Journal has adamantly denied the allegations and demanded his release. U.S. officials have also called on Russia to free him, with President Joe Biden telling reporters on Friday that his message to Russia was: “Let him go.”
The FSB, Russia's top security agency and a successor to the KGB, said Gershkovich was trying to obtain classified information about a Russian arms factory. He is the first U.S. correspondent to be held on spying accusations since the Cold War.
In its summary of Sunday's phone call, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Lavrov “drew Blinken’s attention to the need to respect the decisions of the Russian authorities" about Gershkovich, who Moscow claims, without evidence, “was caught red-handed.”
The Kremlin said Lavrov also told Blinken it was unacceptable for U.S. officials and Western news media to continue “whipping up excitement” and politicizing the journalist’s detention. "His further fate will be determined by the court,” Lavrov said.
Emma Tucker, the Journal's editor-in-chief, said it was “gratifying” and “reassuring” to learn of Blinken’s call with Lavrov because it shows the U.S. government is taking the case “right up to the top.”
U.S. consular officials have requested a visit with Gershkovich and said they were hopeful consular access could be arranged soon. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday the request is being considered and a decision will be made "taking into account existing consular practice and Russian legislation.” She gave no indication of when a decision would be made.
Lawyers for Gershkovich met with him in a Moscow prison on Tuesday for the first time since his detention. They said “his health is good,” according to The Journal.
Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, noted on Sunday that the government has advised U.S. citizens to leave Russia. “This is not unexpected, in that Russia is acting as an illegal state at this point. There are no laws or rules or no international norms that they are following,” Turner, R-Ohio, told CNN's “State of the Union.”
In alleging that U.S. officials and news media are hyping Gershkovich's detention, Russian officials are reprising a theme they used in the apprehensions of basketball star Brittney Griner and other U.S. citizens.
The Kremlin has said it prefers to resolve such cases quietly and has emphasized the need to follow Russia’s judicial process. Often, that means the chance of progress in U.S. efforts to free its detained citizens isn’t likely until formal charges are filed, a trial is held, a conviction is obtained and sentencing and appeals are completed.
Griner, who plays for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, was detained in February 2022 but was not classified as wrongfully held by the State Department until early that May. She was released in December in a prisoner swap.
More than 30 news organizations and press freedom advocates have written the Russian ambassador in the United States to express concern Russia is sending the message that reporting inside the country is criminalized.
Interactions between the top U.S. and Russian diplomats have been rare since Russia began its war in Ukraine in February 2022, though they did have a brief conversation last month on the sidelines of the Group of 20 conference of foreign ministers in India. It was the highest-level in-person talk between the two countries since the war began.
That interaction was their first contact since last summer, when Blinken talked to Lavrov by phone about a U.S. proposal for Russia to release Griner and Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive. Though Whelan was not included in the one-for-one swap that resulted in the release of Griner, U.S. officials said they remained committed to bringing him home.