America’s Top Hostage Envoy Pledges to Secure Evan Gershkovich’s Release From Russian Prison

From a Wall Street Journal story by Louise Radnofsky, Gordon Lubold, and Ann M. Simmons headlined “America’s Top Hostage Envoy Pledges to Secure Evan Gershkovich’s Release From Russian Prison”:

The U.S.’s top hostage negotiator called on Russia to allow American Embassy officials to visit detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and pledged to find a way to secure his release and that of another American, Paul Whelan.

Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, made the remarks in a series of morning television interviews, appearing across ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and MSNBC.

Mr. Gershkovich has yet to receive a visit from U.S. Embassy officials two weeks after he was detained while on a reporting trip and accused of espionage, an accusation the Journal and the U.S. government have vehemently denied. The U.S. considers him wrongfully detained, putting Mr. Carstens in charge of his case.

“The Russians owe us a consular visit and we have yet to have consular access to Mr. Gershkovich, and the Russians owe that by international law and by consular convention,” Mr. Carstens said on CNN.

“We’re continuing to press for it and we haven’t received it. This is like ones and zeros in computer language: you either get consular access, or you don’t,” he said in that appearance.

Hours earlier on Wednesday, Russian officials had said they wouldn’t succumb to pressure from the U.S. government over when to grant consular access to Mr. Gershkovich, raising concern over when U.S. representatives might be allowed to see the detained reporter. He has been visited by lawyers retained by Dow Jones & Co., the parent company of The Wall Street Journal.

“We are acting in this matter in accordance with our laws, taking into account, of course, the relevant provisions of the consular convention, but we are also guided by existing practice in this area,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday, according to the state news agency TASS. “This issue is under consideration.”

Mr. Ryabkov said that any contacts between Russia and the U.S. in relation to Mr. Gershkovich “do not change Moscow’s position” on the matter. Mr. Ryabkov also complained that visas haven’t been issued to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and a Russian delegation to attend a series of U.N. Security Council meetings to be held in New York later this month.

A State Department spokeswoman said in a statement that the U.S. “takes seriously its obligations as host country of the U.N.…including with respect to visa issuance.”

She added that to ensure the timely processing of visas, the U.S. repeatedly reminds Russia’s mission to the U.N., and others, that applications need to be submitted as early as possible.

“This is especially important because of Russia’s unwarranted actions against our Embassy in Russia, including the forced termination of local and third-country national staff, which have severely limited our staffing and therefore our capacity to process visas,” she said.

She declined to comment on the details of individual visa cases, citing confidentiality laws.

U.S. allies also have been calling for Mr. Gershkovich’s release.

The spokeswoman said the U.S. Embassy’s consular section has made multiple attempts through all available legal mechanisms to gain access to Mr. Gershkovich, “but Russia continues to violate its obligations under our consular convention by denying consular access notwithstanding our requests,” she said. “There is no acceptable explanation for this delay in access to our citizen.”

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, said Wednesday that the detainment of Mr. Gershkovich crossed a line.

“When Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arbitrarily detained, it was very important for Canada that other countries stood with us,” she said at an event hosted by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington-based think tank, referring to two Canadians who had been detained by China in 2018 and released in 2021.

“And so I think it is really really important for all of us to call urgently for the release of Evan. It’s just crossing this line which should be incredibly sacrosanct, which is the freedom of journalistic work.”

Mr. Carstens declined to provide specific details about what U.S. negotiators might be able or willing to offer to secure Mr. Gershkovich’s release, saying he wanted to maintain negotiating space. But on ABC, he said he saw discussions happening over “the coming days, weeks, months.”

“We’ve begun in earnest to start sketching out what negotiations might look like, but we’ve yet to get together with them to discuss how we’re going to make this happen and get it done,” he said in that ABC appearance.

He said it wasn’t clear, beyond anecdotal suspicions, that Russia had been emboldened to detain Americans in order to be able to negotiate for the release of Russian prisoners held in the U.S. And he focused on a recent string of successes in securing the release of 26 Americans, and pledged to bring Messrs. Gershkovich and Whelan home.

“We’ll find a way and a path to bring both Paul Whelan and Evan home,” he said on MSNBC.

Mr. Whelan is a corporate security executive from Michigan whom the U.S. considers wrongfully detained by the Russian government, but whose release has been difficult to secure. He has been held in Russia since late 2018 on espionage charges that he, his family and the U.S. government have denied, and was sentenced in 2020 to a 16-year prison sentence.

“I can’t get into the specifics, just as I was told by the administration recently, we have a significant offer on the table,” Mr. Carstens said on MSNBC. “We urge the Russians to take it.”

Mr. Carstens said he had just spoken with Mr. Whelan, by phone on Monday, and they spoke mostly about the case of Mr. Gershkovich, he said. He also said on CNN that Mr. Whelan sings the national anthem every day from his prison cell.

“Paul Whelan is still front and center in the administration’s mind and we’re going to find a way to get Paul Whelan and Evan home,” he said on MSNBC.

Mr. Carstens wouldn’t discuss whether the administration will negotiate Messrs. Gershkovich’s and Whelan’s cases together or separately. But he said that his office doesn’t give priority to certain cases of Americans who are wrongfully detained overseas over others.

Mr. Whelan’s siblings have expressed concern in recent days that their brother could be left behind for a third time when other Americans are freed, and said any recurrence would be “an unconscionable betrayal.”

Moscow has dismissed the State Department’s designation of Mr. Gershkovich as being wrongfully detained as inconsequential.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday that “the American side has obligations…And America must fulfill these obligations.” He didn’t specify what the obligations are.

Russia Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a press conference Wednesday that the U.S. “creating noise” over whether there would be a prison swap for Mr. Gershkovich wouldn’t help.

“We have repeatedly stressed that these issues are resolved by the relevant authorized structures,” she said. “We see a strange dynamic of creating noise around this situation.”

Mr. Carstens, speaking on CNN, said of the detention of Messrs. Gershkovich and Whelan, “All that matters is that they’re holding a blue passport, and that they’re wrongfully detained.”

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