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Blinken: ‘No doubt’ Russian arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter is wrongful detention

The Kremlin charged American citizen and reporter Evan Gershkovich with espionage last week and sent him to a prison made infamous from the Stalin era.

WASHINGTON (CN) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken supports a designation of Russia’s arrest of a Wall Street Journal reporter as a wrongful detention.

Speaking Wednesday at the Brussels headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Blinken reiterated that the State Department is completing a legal review of Evan Gershkovich's detention. Once finished, the agency can consider stronger diplomatic measures to secure the release.

“In Evan’s case, we are working through the determination on wrongful detention,” Blinken told reporters.  “In my own mind, there’s no doubt that he’s being wrongfully detained by Russia.”

Formally designating an American as wrongfully detained shifts supervision of the case to a specialized section of the State Department focused on negotiating the release of captives. The designation allows the government to access several tools, including diplomacy, to secure the release of an American, rather than waiting for a criminal case to make it through the system.

“There’s a process to do that and it’s something we’re working through very deliberately,” Blinken said.

Raised in the U.S. by parents who left the Soviet Union, Gershkovich, 31, is a fluent Russian speaker. Russia’s main security agency detained him on March 30 in the city of Yekaterinburg, which is in the Ural mountains north of Kazakhstan. He was arrested on allegations of espionage.

“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” the Journal said. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”

State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel Blinken summarized a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Sunday in which Blinken called for Gershkovich's immediate release.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre discussed the case at Wednesday’s briefing as well, noting that the State Department must finish its process to designate the case as a wrongful detention. 

On Tuesday, she called the charges "ridiculous” and said the case is “a priority for the president.” 

“Evan is not a spy. Evan has never been a spy. Evan has never worked for the U.S. government,” she said.

The United States previously warned all American citizens to leave Russia. The White House condemned Gershkovich’s detention, and President Joe Biden has said his message to Russia is to “let him go.”

Since Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, circumstances for journalists there have grown bleak. Last March, the country passed a censorship law that makes it illegal to publish what authorities deem false information about military operations in Ukraine. 

Gershkovich, who the Journal said is accredited by Russia’s foreign ministry to work in the country as a journalist, is accused by the Federal Security Bureau of “acting on the instructions 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 Journal reported.

Gershkovich was transferred to Moscow and, after appearing in court with a state-appointed defense attorney and pleading not guilty, was ordered to remain in custody until May 29.

He is being detained at Lefortovo, a czarist era prison that became a top detention facility for the Soviet secret police after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Gershkovich is the first U.S. journalist detained by Russia on espionage charges since U.S. News & World Report journalist Nicholas Daniloff was arrested by the Soviet Union in 1986, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Daniloff spent several weeks in custody but was ultimately allowed to leave Russia uncharged.

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