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House Calls for Immediate Release of Americans Detained by Russia

The House of Representatives called upon Russia on June 12 to immediately release two American prisoners who have been accused of espionage.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, the House passed two resolutions—H. Res. 272 and H. Res. 377—condemning Russia’s “arbitrary and baseless” detention of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan and journalist Evan Gershkovich and calling for their release.

“Today we send a strong message to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin that America—Republicans and Democrats alike—will not tolerate his corrupt regime holding U.S. citizens hostage under false pretenses,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said on the House floor prior to the votes.

Gershkovich, 31, is a Moscow-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). He was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) on March 29 on suspicion of spying for the U.S. government—a charge that Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said lacked evidence.

Gershkovich is the first American journalist to be detained in Russia since the Cold War.

Whelan, meanwhile, is a 53-year-old corporate security executive from Michigan. He was arrested in December 2018 and is currently serving a 16-year sentence at a maximum-security penal colony.

Child of Exiles

According to the WSJ website, Gershkovich has covered Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union for the outlet since January 2022. He also previously worked for Agence France-Presse, The Moscow Times, and The New York Times.

Following his arrest, the FSB claimed that Gershkovich was detained in Yekaterinburg “while attempting to obtain classified information.”

“It was established that Evan Gershkovich, acting at the request of the American side, collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex,” the agency said in a statement.

But the U.S. government, WSJ, and Gershkovich’s family have all denied those claims.

McCaul, decrying Gershkovich’s imprisonment, said the charges that had been leveled against the reporter lacked evidence.

“No evidence has been presented to back up this accusation because there is no evidence,” McCaul said. “Evan is innocent. He was simply doing his job reporting on the news in Russia. But we know that the war criminal Putin doesn’t like that.”

Prior to his detainment, Gershkovich’s most recent stories covered Russia’s war with Ukraine and how the Russian economy was “starting to come undone” from the strain. He also co-authored an in-depth report on Putin in December.

That report, his mother, Ella Gershkovich, said, is what began to change her perspective on the dangers of her son’s work.

“I think when that article came out about Putin in December, [it] got me worried a lot,” she told WSJ in a recent video interview. “Like my mood was changing.”

Ella and Mikhail Gershkovich are both Jewish exiles of the former Soviet Union who emigrated to the United States separately in 1979. After meeting in New York, they eventually settled in New Jersey, where they raised their two children to love and respect the Russian traditions of their own upbringing.

Despite his family’s complicated history with the country, Mikhail Gershkovich said he did not speak with his son about the risks of being a journalist in Russia—a fact he now regrets.

“I trusted him—I trusted his judgment,” he said. “Of course, it makes things more difficult for me now because I feel that I’ve failed in some way as a father.”

Veteran Imprisoned

As for Whelan, the State Department marked the fourth anniversary of his detention in December, decrying the “unfathomable ordeal” the veteran has endured.

“Russian authorities subjected him to a secret trial and sentenced him to 16 years in a Russian penal colony based on secret evidence,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “His detention remains unacceptable, and we continue to press for his immediate release at every opportunity.”

Whelan was in Moscow for the wedding of a fellow Marine veteran on Dec. 28, 2018, when he was arrested on espionage charges. While the FSB said he was arrested while “on a spy mission,” he has maintained his innocence, insisting that he was set up.

The U.S. government has backed him in those claims, with then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan describing Whelan’s trial as a “mockery of justice.”

Previous attempts to secure Whelan’s release in a prisoner swap have failed, even amid Russia’s release of fellow American detainee WNBA star Brittney Griner in December.

Still, Whelan told CNN on May 21 that he remains confident the U.S. government is working to secure his release.

“I remain positive and confident on a daily basis that the wheels are turning,” he said. “I just wish they would turn a little bit more quickly.”

Bipartisan Outrage

Last month, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) presented a united front in opposing the continued imprisonment of Whelan and Gershkovich.

“We strongly condemn Russia’s ongoing and illegal detention of journalist Evan Gershkovich and call for his immediate release,” the lawmakers said on May 4 in a joint statement. “Since arresting Evan five weeks ago, Russia has failed to provide any credible evidence to justify its manufactured charges. Journalism is not a crime and his detention is another deeply concerning attack on freedom of the press across the globe.

“The persecution of Gershkovich is part of a disturbing practice by Putin’s Russia of kidnapping American citizens and using Soviet-style show trials to unjustly imprison them,” they added. “Today, the Kremlin not only holds Gershkovich hostage, it continues to unjustly imprison Paul Whelan. Russia must release Gershkovich and Whelan now.”

The two resolutions echo those comments, expressing solidarity with the families of the two prisoners and “all other American citizens and lawful permanent residents wrongfully detained abroad.”

The bills’ passage in the House comes on the heels of Russian authorities’ arrest of an American musician and former paratrooper, Michael Travis Leake, on drug charges.

Leake was arraigned on June 10. According to a statement posted to Telegram by Moscow’s courts of general jurisdiction, he will remain in custody until Aug. 6. He faces up to 12 years in prison if found guilty.

Commenting on Leake’s arrest at a White House press briefing, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on June 12 that the State Department was examining the situation.

“I know that the State Department is, at least as of my coming out here, trying to get in touch with the family and they’re looking into this case,” Kirby said. “As far as I know, consular officers were present at his arraignment and did get a consular visit with him. We’ll obviously continue to monitor this and stay in touch with his case as much as possible, but it’s just too soon for me to be able to characterize it one way or another.”

Reuters and Katabella Roberts contributed to this report.

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