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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In rare call with Lavrov, Blinken demands release of imprisoned American journalist

Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was escorted by officers from a court in Moscow on Thursday.

By Emma Bubola

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said over the weekend that he had spoken with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to demand the release of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter 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, Blinken said on Twitter that he had spoken with 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 Blinken had initiated the call. In a statement, the ministry repeated the Russia’s claim that 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, and American citizens working in Russia risk detention and becoming political pawns.

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

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

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

Griner, a WNBA star, was arrested at a Russian airport in February 2022 and given a nine-year sentence on drug 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 President Vladimir 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 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 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. 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, Russian authorities have signaled that it is too early to discuss such a swap in Gershkovich’s case. Sergei Ryabkov, a deputy foreign minister, said 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 Whelan.

Like Gershkovich, 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 the United States had sought to free Whelan, as well as Griner, in exchange for releasing Bout.

Griner and Whelan were the subject of the only other known call between Blinken and Lavrov since the war began, when the two diplomats discussed a possible swap last summer. (Blinken and 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.)

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.

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