A group of nine bipartisan senators called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to immediately designate an American teacher sentenced to 14 years in Russian prison as “wrongfully detained,” a classification that would allow the US government to undertake active diplomatic efforts to secure his release.
In a letter Tuesday, the senators said they were deeply concerned for Marc Fogel’s safety, and that his lengthy prison sentence – which he received after being found with cannabis – “can only be understood as a political ploy by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime.”
“The United States cannot stand by as Mr. Fogel wastes away in a Russian hard labor camp,” wrote Sens. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat; Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican; Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican; Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat; Steve Daines, a Montana Republican; John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat; Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat; Shelly Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican; and Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat.
Fogel worked for nearly a decade as a history teacher at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, where children of US diplomats were among his students. He was arrested 11 months ago at an airport in the Russian capital, where he was returning for the school year, after traveling into the country with about 17 grams of cannabis, which his family and lawyer said was recommended by a doctor to treat “severe spinal pain.”
In June, he was found guilty of committing “large-scale drug smuggling” and sentenced at a court just outside of Moscow – the same one where detained WNBA player Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison earlier this month on drug smuggling charges after she was arrested with less than a gram of cannabis.
Fogel’s family told CNN last month that they fear the 14 years at a Russian hard labor camp amounts to “a death sentence.” In their letter Tuesday, the senators note that while Fogel did break Russian law, “his sentence is grossly disproportionate to similar cases.”
“As Russian lawyers have pointed out, the most common sentence in similar cases is five years of probation. Drug traffickers who have committed much worse offenses have received shorter sentences,” they wrote.
Fogel has not been designated as wrongfully detained, unlike Griner, whom the US is actively negotiating with Russia to try to free as part of a deal that includes a prisoner swap.
“Marc Fogel’s case warrants the same degree of political attention and diplomatic intervention,” the senators wrote, adding, “While we understand the State Department has previously requested Mr. Fogel’s release on humanitarian grounds due to his poor medical condition, we strongly urge that the Administration to escalate Mr. Fogel’s case by designating him as ‘wrongfully detained.’”
Last month, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that “in determining whether detention is wrongful, determining if the detention is wrongful, we look at the totality of the circumstances, and those circumstances are then weighed against a series of criteria and factors,” including criteria for wrongful detention laid out in the Robert Levinson Act.
In their letter, the senators argue that Fogel meets six of the 11 criteria laid out in that 2020 law, including detention “substantially because he is a U.S. citizen.”
“We never close the book when it comes to any particular case,” Price said last month. “We are constantly looking at the facts; we are constantly looking at the circumstances as we learn more about any given case, as we learn more about the circumstances of detention, the charges, fair trial guarantees, due process or lack thereof. We are always weighing those developments against the criteria to determine whether an American is wrongfully held or not.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Sen. Steve Daines is a Republican.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.