blinken demands release of evan gershkovich in call with lavrov

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with his Russian counterpart after the American basketball star Brittney Griner, who was detained for almost 10 months by Russia, urged the U.S. government to use “every tool possible” to secure Evan Gershkovich’s release.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Sunday that he had spoken with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, to demand the release of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who has been imprisoned in Russia on what the United States and the newspaper called a bogus espionage charge.

In a rare call between the two men since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Mr. Blinken said on Twitter that he had spoken with Mr. Lavrov and expressed “grave concern over Russia’s unacceptable detention of a U.S. citizen journalist.” He said he also called for the release of another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Mr. Blinken had initiated the call. In a statement, the ministry repeated the Kremlin’s claim that Mr. Gershkovich had been caught “red-handed” committing “illegal activities” — an allegation the United States and the Wall Street Journal have vehemently denied.

Tensions between the United States and Russia have become increasingly strained since Russia began preparing for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, and American citizens working in Russia risk detention and becoming political pawns.

Brittney Griner, the American basketball star who was detained for almost 10 months by Russia last year, urged the U.S. government on Sunday to use “every tool possible” to secure Mr. Gershkovich’s release.

“We must do everything in our power to bring him and all Americans home,” Ms. Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, wrote in a statement they posted on Instagram, in which they also thanked President Biden for his efforts to secure the release of imprisoned U.S. citizens.

Russian authorities announced that Mr. Gershkovich had been arrested on Thursday, saying that he was “suspected of spying in the interests of the American government.” If convicted, Mr. Gershkovich would face up to 20 years in a Russian penal colony. (Acquittals in espionage cases in Russia are virtually unheard-of.)

Brittney Griner, who was released in December, posted a joint online statement about the case of Evan Gershkovich with her wife, Cherelle Griner.Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Ms. Griner, a W.N.B.A. star, was arrested at a Russian airport last February and given a nine-year sentence on drugs charges after she said she accidentally transported vape cartridges containing a cannabis extract in her luggage. Her case became an international cause because she was seen as a hostage held by Mr. Putin’s government as Russia was subjected to international sanctions in response to its invasion of Ukraine a week after her arrest.

The Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap stalled for months as Ms. Griner was sent to a penal colony outside Moscow. She was freed in December in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as “the Merchant of Death” who was serving a 25-year weapons-trafficking sentence.

A prisoner swap also helped secure the release last year of a former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed, who had been held for two years on what his family said were false charges of assaulting two Moscow police officers. Mr. Reed was released in April at the same time as Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who had been serving a lengthy drug-smuggling sentence in the United States.

However, the Russian authorities have signaled that it is too early to discuss such a swap in Mr. Gershkovich’s case. Sergei A. Ryabkov, a deputy foreign minister, said on Thursday that previous prisoner exchanges “took place for people who were already serving sentences.”

Other Americans remain in captivity in Russia, including Marc Fogel, a history teacher who was detained in 2021 for having a small quantity of medical marijuana, and Mr. Whelan.

Like Mr. Gershkovich, Mr. Whelan, a former Marine was accused of espionage charges that the United States has described as manufactured. He was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to a 16-year prison term in 2020. A person briefed on the negotiations last year said that the United States had sought to free Mr. Whelan, as well as Ms. Griner, in exchange for releasing Mr. Bout.

Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan were the subject of the only other known call between Mr. Blinken and Mr. Lavrov since the war began, when the two diplomats discussed a possible swap last summer. (Mr. Blinken and Mr. Lavrov also had an unscheduled encounter on the sidelines of an international conference in New Delhi in March, their first face-to-face exchange since the invasion.)

Ms. Griner has previously encouraged “everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home.”

“Every family deserves to be whole,” she wrote on Instagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *