OAN Brooke Mallory
UPDATED 6:32 PM – Monday, April 10, 2023
A United States government initiative to put pressure on Russia to release Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter Evan Gershkovich was launched on Monday, when the State Department declared him to have been “wrongfully detained” after his arrest by Russian security forces last month.
The WSJ and the U.S. government adamantly refuted the espionage charge that Gershkovich is being jailed on. His case has now been sent to a State Department division called the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, which is responsible for negotiating the release of Americans who have been wrongfully detained abroad, including hostages.
“Journalism is not a crime… We call for the Russian Federation to immediately release Mr. Gershkovich,” said State Department spokesman Vedant Patel.
The department had also requested the release of Paul Whelan, a different American who was illegally detained, from Russian custody. He is still imprisoned after being ordered to serve 16 years in a Russian correctional colony. His relatives claim that the accusations are preposterous.
Requests for comment were not immediately answered by the Russian representatives to the United Nations (UN) and the Russian embassy in Washington.
According to officials, the speed at which the designation was made was remarkable because it often entails a drawn-out bureaucratic procedure, which can take months.
Rarely does the designation occur prior to the detainee having the opportunity to speak with American consular representatives from the nearby embassy. Gershkovich has been denied this opportunity, so far.
“While this case has moved at a record pace, it still took almost two weeks for our government to make this determination. We must do more to streamline the process—especially as it relates to journalists…We believe it is always a wrongful detention when a journalist is held for doing their job,” said Eileen O’Reilly and Gil Klein in a joint statement.
O’Reilly is the president of the National Press Club while Klein is the president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute.
They demanded that the matter be sent to the White House National Security Council for quicker resolution by the State Department’s hostage envoy.
Emma Tucker, the WSJ’S editor in chief, quoted Gershkovich’s attorneys as saying last week that he was in good health and very appreciative of the support he has received from people all around the world.
Before the verdict was reached, Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R-N.Y.) declared that he had “no doubt” that Gershkovich had been unjustly detained by Russians. He also said that he had brought up the subject in a call with his Russian peer, Sergei Lavrov, earlier in the month.
The WSJ demanded for Gershkovich’s immediate release and denied any misconduct on his side.
“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.”
The White House dismissed the accusations against Gershkovich as being “ridiculous,” and also disputed that he was a spy. They asserted that he has never worked for the American government.
The Senate’s Democrat and Republican leaders jointly denounced Gershkovich’s imprisonment and called for his release in a statement released on Friday.
“He doesn’t belong there. He needs to be released. He’s a journalist, not a criminal… And it doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to continue to follow this case as closely as we can. We still don’t have consular access and we’re also trying to get that,” said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Monday.
The finding that Gershkovich was “wrongfully detained” frees up additional U.S. government resources to work on his case. It increases the State Department’s power to put pressure on Moscow, track intelligence, form diplomatic alliances, use the media to influence public opinion, and fight for routine consular access.
The classification is rather uncommon in which 99% of Americans detained abroad confront legal issues, even while the U.S. does not determine that their detention is unlawful.
Unlawful detainees are codified in the U.S. according to 11 parameters, including whether the person was detained at least in part due to their American citizenship. More than a dozen nations, including Iran and China, are home to more than 50 Americans who are being unlawfully jailed abroad.
According to a State Department spokeswoman, the administration does not announce the precise numbers of hostages or Americans who have been wrongfully detained because “as the numbers are fluid, and due to privacy concerns and the sensitivity of ongoing efforts to secure the release of all U.S. nationals,” said a State Department spokesman.
The 31-year-old WSJ reporter was held on March 29th and accused of espionage while visiting the Russian regional city of Yekaterinburg, which is located about 800 miles east of Moscow. He is the first journalist from the U.S. to be jailed by Russian authorities since 1986, but he is just one of several Americans who are believed to have been unjustly detained by Russia in recent years.
The Russian Foreign Ministry had granted him permission to work as a journalist there.
Moscow asserts that Gershkovich was caught “red-handed” by its Federal Security Service, also known as the FSB for its Russian initials, although they have not provided any proof or justification to support this assertion or his incarceration. Russia claims that they are just following their own laws.
In Russia’s Lefortovo Prison, an FSB-run facility for pretrial detention, Gershkovich is being detained. FSB trials are frequently held in secret, with little to no information about a defendant’s case being disclosed.
The incarceration of Gershkovich is a “brazen act” by the Russian government and a violation of press freedom, according to World Bank President David Malpass, who made a statement on Monday.
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