Russia Discusses Prisoner Swaps With U.S.

From a Wall Street Journal story by Georgi Kantchev and Louise Radnofsky headlined “Russia Discusses Prisoner Swaps With U.S.”:

Russia is in contact with the U.S. regarding prisoner swaps, a Kremlin spokesman said in a briefing, after consular visits to Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in detention in Russia and a Russian held in the U.S.

Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday was asked to comment on the possibility of a prisoner exchange in light of the recent visits to Gershkovich and Vladimir Dunaev, according to reports of the briefing on Russian state media.

“There are certain contacts in this regard, but we do not want to make them public in any way,” Peskov said, without naming any detainee. “They must continue in complete silence.”

Gershkovich, a 31-year-old American citizen who was accredited by Russia’s Foreign Ministry to work as a journalist, was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, while on a reporting trip in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on March 29. He is being held on an allegation of espionage that he, the Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny.

Washington has said Gershkovich isn’t a spy and has never worked for the government. The Biden administration has designated him wrongfully detained, a status that effectively commits the U.S. government to securing his release.

“While we unfortunately do not have a breakthrough to share, we continue to pursue every avenue to secure the release of Evan Gershkovich and fellow American Paul Whelan,” a White House official said.

The special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, said last week that the U.S. had been in contact with Russia over the reporter’s case and would continue to try to find ways to work for his release, but that Russian officials had signaled they weren’t especially willing to engage.

“He’s not a spy. We’ve been very clear with that with the Russians. The Russians, however, have been playing a tough game. They’re not willing to really talk to us about him yet,” Carstens said, appearing on a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

A State Department spokesperson declined on Tuesday to go into detail on the negotiations process, citing the continuing work to secure the release of Gershkovich and Whelan, another American considered wrongfully detained in Russia.

On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to Russia was granted access to Gershkovich, following weeks of repeated U.S. requests to meet with him. It was the second such visit since the journalist’s detention began.

Lynne Tracy visited Gershkovich at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison a little over a week after a court upheld a request from the FSB to extend the reporter’s detention to at least Aug. 30 while he awaits trial. Gershkovich’s lawyers had appealed the FSB’s request.

Russian diplomats have visited Dunaev, who is in U.S. custody on cybercrime charges, Russian state media reported Tuesday.

Russian officials have previously hinted at the possibility of a deal for the journalist but said that any consideration of a swap involving Gershkovich would have to wait until a court issues a verdict in his case.

A prisoner exchange between U.S. and Russia has long been seen by U.S. observers and officials as the likeliest way of securing the reporter’s freedom, particularly after two high-profile instances last year in which Americans whom the U.S. considered to be wrongfully detained in Russia were swapped for Russians convicted of crimes in the U.S.

American basketball player Brittney Griner, convicted of drug charges, was exchanged for Russian businessman Viktor Bout, who had been imprisoned in the U.S. on arms-trafficking charges. Trevor Reed, an American who was convicted in Russia of assaulting two police officers, was swapped for Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011 for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.

Legal experts say it could be many months before Gershkovich’s case is brought to trial, as investigators gather materials to present before a judge. Under Russian law, investigators and prosecutors have wide latitude to request further extensions of pretrial detention. Espionage trials are typically conducted in secret, as in most countries, and conviction carries a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years. It is rare for a court to acquit a defendant.

The U.S. has been grappling with a rise in hostage diplomacy, in which hostile foreign governments seeking to extract concessions have detained Americans on what the U.S. deems to be trumped-up charges. In recent years, such instances have eclipsed the capture of Americans by terrorist groups and criminal gangs, according to multiple counts. Russia is formally considered by the U.S. to be one of six countries engaging in a pattern of wrongful detentions, along with China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and Venezuela, against a backdrop of rising tensions for the Kremlin with the West and for Moscow’s own invasion of Ukraine.

Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage in 2020. The corporate-security executive from Michigan was arrested in December 2018 while visiting for a friend’s wedding. Like Gershkovich, Whelan is officially considered by the U.S. to be being held unlawfully in Russia. He and his family say the espionage charges are bogus.

Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison in Russia for espionage. The corporate-security executive from Michigan was arrested in December 2018 while visiting the country for a friend’s wedding. Whelan’s family says the espionage charges are bogus. He is also deemed by the U.S. to be wrongfully detained.

Since his incarceration, Whelan’s twin brother, David Whelan, has launched an online campaign to secure his sibling’s release, frequently emailing updates to supporters and the media to ensure that he isn’t forgotten and keeping a running clock on the number of days that his brother has been held. contributed to this article.

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