The US State Department on Monday officially designated Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich as wrongfully detained by Russia.
“Today, Secretary Blinken made a determination that Evan Gershkovich is wrongfully detained by Russia,” State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a statement.
The designation gives further backing to the assertions by the US government and the Wall Street Journal that the espionage charges against the reporter are baseless. It will empower the Biden administration to explore avenues such as a prisoner swap to try to secure Gershkovich’s release.
His case will now be handled at the State Department through the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, which has played a key role in the release of US citizens held hostage and wrongfully detained around the world.
Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia for more than four years on espionage charges that he and the US government deny, has also been declared wrongfully detained.
In his statement, Patel said the “U.S. government will provide all appropriate support to Mr. Gershkovich and his family.”
“We call for the Russian Federation to immediately release Mr. Gershkovich,” he said. “We also call on Russia to release wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan.”
The editor in chief and publisher of the Wall Street Journal on Monday said they “are doing everything in our power to support Evan and his family and will continue working with the State Department and other relevant U.S. officials to push for his 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,” the statement from Emma Tucker and Almar Latour said.
Gershkovich was detained in late March and formally charged with espionage last Friday. As of Monday, officials at the US Embassy in Moscow had not been granted consular access to Gershkovich.
“It is a violation of Russia’s obligations under our consular convention and a violation against international law,” Patel said at a State Department briefing Monday. “We have stressed the need for the Russian government to provide this access as soon as possible.”
The official determination that Gershkovich is wrongfully detained comes after a bureaucratic process played out within the US government.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week they were “very deliberately but expeditiously” carrying out that process, but “in (his) own mind, there’s no doubt that he’s being wrongfully detained by Russia.”
The arrest of the journalist – the first of its kind in Russia since the Cold War – prompted the top US diplomat to make a rare call to his Russian counterpart.
“Secretary Blinken conveyed the United States’ grave concern over Russia’s unacceptable detention of a U.S. citizen journalist,” a State Department readout of the April 2 call said.
That call was only the third time that Blinken has spoken with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov since the war in Ukraine began, and all of those conversations have discussed detained US citizens. The two spoke in person for the first time since the war broke out on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers meeting in India last month, and Blinken said he raised the issues of the war, Russia’s suspension of its participation in the New START nuclear agreement, and Whelan’s ongoing detention.