U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally declared on Sunday that Russian authorities had wrongfully detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, giving federal officials additional resources to secure his release.
Blinken announced the official classification involving Gershkovich, who was arrested last week on accusations of espionage by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). The category gives control to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department to handle the situation.
“Journalism is not a crime,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesperson, told NBC in a statement. “We condemn the Kremlin’s continued repression of independent voices in Russia and its ongoing war against the truth.”
Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week, calling for the “immediate release” of Gershkovich, and Paul Whelan, a U.S. Marine veteran detained in the country since 2018.
On March 29, in the first arrest of an American journalist on espionage charges since 1986, Gershokovich was detained in Yekaterinburg, located in the Ural Mountains, while on a reporting trip, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Russian Foreign Ministry claimed the United States was politicizing Gershokovich’s detention, saying, “it is unacceptable for officials in Washington and the western media to whip up a stir with the clear intention of giving this case a political colouring.”
“Blinken’s attention was drawn to the need to respect the decisions of the Russian authorities, taken in accordance with the law and international obligations of the Russian Federation,” the foreign ministry said.
Russia has yet to provide any evidence for the allegations against Gershkovich but claimed he was “caught red-handed while trying to obtain secret information, collecting data constituting a state secret under the guise of a journalistic status.”
According to The New York Times, Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in prison. The Wall Street Journal “vehemently denies” the allegations, as did Gershkovich in a court appearance last week.
Whelan is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence in a penal colony on espionage charges, accusations which Whelan denies and the U.S. government says are baseless.
President Joe Biden recently told reporters that his message to Russia regarding Gershkovich was “let him go.”
Ben Whitehead contributed to this report.