Editorial: Biden administration must designate Fogel as wrongfully detained

It was March 29 when Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg, Russia, charged with espionage and held in a foreign prison.

On April 10, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken determined the journalist was wrongfully detained.

It took just 12 days.

Teacher Marc Fogel of Oakmont was arrested in August 2021 in Moscow when he was found in possession of a small amount of medical marijuana he used for chronic pain. He was convicted of drug trafficking in June. The sentence was 14 years in a Russian penal colony.

Fogel has been in the custody of Vladimir Putin’s government for one year and eight months. Despite repeated and bipartisan calls for Fogel to be designated as wrongfully detained, such a determination has yet to be made by the State Department.

But does that really matter? Are those two words that important?

Apparently.

“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,” the State Department announced April 10. “We also call on Russia to release wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan.”

The department’s own directions for families of a detained individual outline that wrongful detention is part of an overall evaluation, not simply the legal aspects. It looks at whether the incident was discriminatory or arbitrarily enforced. It opens the door for multiple state agencies to work together toward liberating the detained.

With that in mind, Fogel’s possession of a substance that is legal in Pennsylvania should not be a sticking point — especially because it was not a factor the last time an American was freed from Russia.

WNBA star Brittney Griner was arrested for possession of cannabis oil. She was convicted and sentenced. But in December 2022, she was part of a prisoner exchange that came after months of attention to her case and demands that she be returned.

This week Griner announced a 2024 book that will go into detail about her experience in Russia.

“By writing this book, I also hope to raise awareness surrounding other Americans wrongfully detained abroad such as Paul Whelan, Evan Gershkovich, Emad Shargi, Airan Berry, Shahab Dalili, Luke Denman, Eyvin Hernandez, Majd Kamalmaz, Jerrel Kenemore, Kai Li, Siamak Namazi, Austin Tice, Mark Swidan and Morad Tahbaz,” she said in a statement.

Note the words “wrongfully detained.” Griner, who was held in the same country as Fogel and convicted of the same crime, did not include his name.

This is not Griner’s fault. She does not make the determination of who gets that label and who doesn’t. The State Department does. The Biden administration can push for it. State and federal leaders and legislators have but to no avail, despite the fact Fogel was in Russia educating diplomats’ children at the Anglo-American School in Moscow.

A State Department spokesman confirmed to the
Tribune-Review that consular officials last spoke to Fogel on Feb. 9 and last spoke to his family Friday.

“The U.S. government continues to call on the Russian government to release Marc Fogel on humanitarian grounds,” the spokesman said.

It is not enough.

If Gershkovich could be designated wrongfully detained in 12 days and Griner freed in 10 months, action on Fogel is long past due.

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