US ambassador makes third visit to jailed journalist Evan Gershkovich

Ambassador Lynne Tracy renewed her appeal for Russia to release the reporter as well as imprisoned US Marine Paul Whelan.

A man, Evan Gershkovich, peers out from a glass cage as he attends a hearing in June.
Journalist Evan Gershkovich in Moscow City Court in Russia on June 22 [File: Dmitry Serebryakov/AP Photo]

The United States ambassador to Russia has reiterated her call for the release of journalist Evan Gershkovich after making a third visit to the jailed Wall Street Journal reporter.

Ambassador Lynne Tracy said through a spokesperson on Monday that the 31-year-old Gershkovich appeared to be “in good health” despite nearly four and a half months in detention.

“Once again, the United States calls on the Russian Federation to immediately release Evan Gershkovich and also to release wrongfully detained US citizen Paul Whelan,” the spokesperson said.

Gershkovich and Whelan, a former US Marine and corporate security expert, are being held on charges of espionage in two separate cases. The US has condemned the allegations as illegitimate and politically motivated, and both men have maintained their innocence.

A woman, Danielle Gershkovich, steps down from a stage, above which a screen projects an image of her brother.
Danielle Gershkovich speaks about her brother Evan Gershkovich’s detention in Russia at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on July 13 [File: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

Gershkovich was arrested on March 29 while reporting in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg near the Ural Mountains. He is being held in pre-trial detention after a court rejected an appeal to overturn his arrest in April.

Not since the Cold War has a US journalist been arrested on spying charges. Tracy has since met with Gershkovich on April 17 and again on July 3.

US officials have previously protested that they had been denied access to the journalist, who is being detained in Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo Prison. No date has been set for his trial.

Whelan, meanwhile, was arrested in 2018 at a Moscow hotel after allegedly receiving a thumb drive with intelligence information, according to prosecutors. He was ultimately sentenced to 16 years in prison.

In 2022, the administration of US President Joe Biden said that officials had made a “serious offer” to get Whelan back as part of a prisoner swap.

But when such an exchange finally materialised in December, it only involved the release of Brittney Griner, a US basketball star imprisoned for cannabis possession. Her freedom came in exchange for the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “merchant of death”.

It was the second time a prisoner exchange with Russia had failed to include Whelan.

In April 2022, the US swapped Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted of cocaine smuggling. Reed had served three years for allegedly assaulting a police officer.

A man, Paul Whelan, stands in a glass box holding a sign that reads, "Sham trial! Meatball surgery! No human rights! Paul's life matters! Decisive action from POTUS and PM needed! Happy birthday, Flora!"
Paul Whelan protests his detention with a sign that reads ‘Sham trial!’ during a verdict hearing on June 15, 2020 [File: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

As the US continues to negotiate for another prisoner exchange, Whelan and his family have expressed concern that he could once again be left out of any potential swap.

“Paul’s fear of being left behind a third time was apparently palpable in his conversation with our parents yesterday,” his brother David Whelan told the Wall Street Journal in April.

Whelan’s and Gershkovich’s arrests have come during a period of heightened tensions between the US and Russia, particularly in the wake of the latter’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies