US formally deems WSJ reporter ‘wrongfully detained’ in Russia

Washington is calling again for the immediate release of Evan Gershkovich, who is being held by Moscow on espionage charges.

The United States has formally labeled Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich as “unjustly detained” by Russia, renewing calls for the release of the US citizen.

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

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

Specifically, the designation moves Gershkovich’s case to the office of the Presidential Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, which is pushing efforts to ensure the freedom of “unlawful prisoners held abroad, support their families, and end the practice of hostage diplomacy”.

“Journalism is not a crime. We condemn the Kremlin’s continued suppression 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 continued to rise between Washington and Moscow 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 continues to try to reach Gershkovich, but Russian authorities have not granted their requests. Consular access allows diplomats to communicate with citizens imprisoned abroad.

“It is a violation of Russia’s obligations under our consular convention and a violation of international law,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said at a news conference Monday afternoon.

“We have stressed that the Russian government must grant us access as soon as possible.”

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

“The US government will provide Mr. Gershkovich and his family with all necessary support. We call on the Russian Federation to immediately release Mr. Gershkovich,” the Foreign Ministry said.

In a statement following Monday’s formal designation, Wall Street Journal 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 leading journalist and his arrest is an attack on a free press and should outrage all free people and governments around the world,” they said.

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

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

Late last year, Russia released American basketball player Brittney Griner in a prisoner exchange that did not involve Whelan. Griner was held on drug charges days before Russia launched its all-out assault on Ukraine.