Blinken Calls on Russia to Release US Journalist, Ex-Marine Accused of Espionage

Lorenz Duchamps
By Lorenz Duchamps
April 3, 2023US News
Blinken Calls on Russia to Release US Journalist, Ex-Marine Accused of Espionage
The Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich (L) is shown in this undated photo. (The Wall Street Journal via AP); Paul Whelan (R), a former U.S. Marine, stands in a cage as he waits for a hearing in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 23, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo)

On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the immediate release of two Americans detained by Russia on espionage charges.

In a statement on April 2, the Department of State announced that Blinken had spoken with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a rare phone call between the diplomats since the Ukraine war and demanded the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.

In the call with his Russian counterpart, Blinken conveyed his worry about the Kremlin’s detention of Gershkovich on espionage allegations and called for his “immediate release.”

“Blinken conveyed the United States’ grave concern over Russia’s unacceptable detention of a U.S. citizen journalist,” according to a readout of the call, which added Blinken also urged the Kremlin to immediately release Whelan, whom the statement said was “wrongfully detained.”

According to the Department of State, Blinken and Lavrov “discussed the importance of creating an environment that permits diplomatic missions to carry out their work.”

Last week, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Gershkovich on accusations that the Moscow-based correspondent was involved in espionage on behalf of the United States.

The FSB, a top domestic security and counterintelligence agency that succeeded the Soviet-era KGB, said on March 29 that it had detained Gershkovich in the city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, roughly 900 miles east of Moscow.

Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, was detained in December 2018 and was given a 16-year prison sentence on espionage charges, which his family and the U.S. government have said are baseless.

Last summer, top U.S. and Russian diplomats agreed to a prisoner swap in which WNBA player Brittney Griner was released in exchange for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. Initially, U.S. officials wanted to exchange both Whelan and Griner for Bout, but the Russian government did not agree to those terms.

Though Whelan was not included in the one-for-one swap that resulted in the release of Griner, U.S. officials said they remain committed to bringing him home.

Whelan, Griner
Paul Whelan (L), a former U.S. Marine, in Moscow on June 15, 2020. Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner (R) at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow, on Aug. 4, 2022. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Evan Gershkovich

According to The Wall Street Journal’s official website, Gershkovich, 31, is a reporter covering Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union. He was previously a reporter for Agence France-Presse and the Moscow Times and a news assistant at The New York Times.

The FSB said Gershkovich is accredited to work as a journalist in Russia by the country’s foreign ministry.

The security service said that it had “thwarted the illegal activities of Evan Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen born in 1991, a correspondent of the Moscow bureau of the American newspaper The Wall Street Journal, who is suspected of spying in the interests of the American government,” in a statement translated by the state-run news agency TASS.

“It was established that Evan Gershkovich, acting at the request of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex,” the statement continues. “The foreigner was detained in Yekaterinburg while attempting to obtain classified information.”

The Wall Street Journal has adamantly denied the allegations and demanded his release. When asked about the case during a news briefing on Friday, President Joe Biden told reporters that his message to the country was: “Let him go.”

Emma Tucker, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, said the newspaper is hopeful a lawyer might be able to meet with Gershkovich this coming week. In the meantime, she has been “pressing constantly for reassurance that he’s not being mistreated in any way.”

Epoch Times reporter Katabella Roberts and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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