US formally deems WSJ reporter ‘wrongfully detained’ in Russia

Washington renews call for the immediate release of Evan Gershkovich, who is being held by Moscow on spying charges.

Evan Gershkovich
Press freedom groups have condemned Evan Gershkovich's detention in Russia [File: The Wall Street Journal/Handout via Reuters]

The United States has formally designated Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained” by Russia, renewing calls for the American citizen’s release.

The move on Monday comes more than 10 days after Russian authorities announced they had arrested Gershkovich on spying charges that US President Joe Biden’s administration dismissed as “ridiculous” early on.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s “wrongful” detention determination makes it the official US position that Gershkovich is unfairly imprisoned and opens the door for Washington to devote more resources to pushing for his release.

Specifically, the designation moves Gershkovich’s case to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, which leads efforts to secure the freedom of “wrongful detainees held abroad, support their families, and end the practice of hostage diplomacy”.

“Journalism is not a crime. We condemn the Kremlin’s continued repression of independent voices in Russia, and its ongoing war against the truth,” the State Department said in a statement.

Media advocacy groups and the Wall Street Journal previously denounced Gershkovich’s detention, which came as tensions between Washington and Moscow continue to mount amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

But Russian authorities have insisted that Gershkovich was “caught red-handed”.

Earlier on Monday, Washington accused Moscow of violating international law by denying US officials consular access to the reporter.

The State Department said it is continuing to try to reach Gershkovich but Russian authorities have not granted its requests. Consular access allows diplomats to communicate with citizens jailed in foreign countries.

“It is a violation of Russia’s obligations under our consular convention and a violation against international law,” State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters during a news briefing on Monday afternoon.

“We have stressed the need for the Russian government to provide us access as soon as possible.”

In a phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov earlier this month, Blinken called for Gershkovich’s “immediate release” – a demand Washington reiterated on Monday.

“The US government will provide all appropriate support to Mr Gershkovich and his family. We call for the Russian Federation to immediately release Mr Gershkovich,” the State Department said.

In a statement after Monday’s formal designation, the Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief Emma Tucker and publisher Almar Latour said they were working with US officials to push for Gershkovich’s release.

“He is a distinguished journalist and his arrest is an attack on a free press and it should spur outrage in all free people and governments around the world,” they said.

The journalist is now one of two American citizens the US says are “wrongfully detained” in Russia.

Paul Whelan, a former US Marine veteran, remains in a Russian prison after he was sentenced to 16 years in 2020 on espionage charges that Washington says are false.

Late last year, Russia released US basketball player Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap that did not include Whelan. Griner was detained on drug charges days before Russia launched its all-out assault on Ukraine.

Source: Al Jazeera