There is “no doubt” that The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been wrongfully detained by Russian authorities, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.
Blinken said he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the weekend that the U.S. was “gravely concerned” about the detention and called for Gershkovich's immediate release.
“In my own mind, there’s no doubt that he’s being wrongfully detained by Russia, which is exactly what I said to Foreign Minister Lavrov,” Blinken said at a news conference in Brussels, the Belgian capital, where he was attending a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.
“There is no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens around the world, and that includes those who may be wrongfully detained, held hostage, otherwise kept from coming home, being with our families,” he added.
Gershkovich, who has been held in Russia on espionage charges since last week, met with lawyers for the first time Tuesday, the Journal reported.
The newspaper added that the U.S. government was preparing to officially declare Gershkovich, 31, as “wrongfully detained.”
The designation would initiate U.S. government agencies to work collaboratively inside and outside the government to “develop a strategy to secure individuals’ release,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a news briefing Tuesday.
“This is a case that is a priority for this president,” Jean-Pierre said. She added that the State Department had been attempting to secure consular access to Gershkovich since they were informed of his arrest.
“Evan is not a spy,” Jean-Pierre added. “Evan has never worked for the U.S. government. And he is an independent journalist employed by The Wall Street Journal.”
Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the FSB, said Thursday that Gershkovich was arrested on suspicion of “espionage in the interests of the American government.” A Moscow court ordered his pre-trial detention until at least May 29.
Gershkovich denied the charges and has filed an appeal against his arrest, Russia’s state news agency Tass reported.
The Journal has also vehemently denied the charges.
“We are encouraged that Evan’s lawyers ... were able to meet with him in prison today,” the Journal’s editor-in-chief, Emma Tucker, wrote Tuesday in an email to the newsroom. “Evan’s health is good, and he is grateful for the outpouring of support from around the world. We continue to call for his immediate release.”
Tucker added that Gershkovich’s family is “relieved to know we finally have contact with Evan.”
“The legal avenue is one of several avenues we are working to advocate for Evan’s release. We continue to work with the White House, State Department and relevant U.S. government officials to secure Evan’s release,” Tucker said.
Washington and Moscow conducted a high-profile prisoner exchange in December in which WNBA star Brittney Griner returned home to the U.S., but the Kremlin has suggested that any talks on Gershkovich will have to wait for criminal proceedings to play out.
Expressing concern for Gershkovich over the weekend, Griner herself urged the Biden administration to “use every tool possible” to secure the release of the American journalist.
Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, was summoned to the State Department on Thursday to discuss Gershkovich's detention, a spokesperson confirmed to NBC News.
Antonov met with Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, the spokesperson said, declining to provide further details about the private diplomatic discussion.
Independent Russian journalists published an open letter Tuesday in solidarity with Gershkovich, labeling the case against him “preposterous and unjust” and demanding his release.
The letter was published on the Russian-language independent news outlet Meduza, which was made illegal in Russia in January but has continued to work outside the country.
“Evan Gershkovich’s reputation as a reporter is stellar, and his work has always met the highest journalistic standards,” the letter said.
“The FSB’s reputation, on the contrary, has been destroyed over the years by its own agents. There is no reason for society to trust these 'professionals,'” it added.
The letter added that Gershkovich’s case was similar to that of a Russian former investigative journalist, Ivan Safronov, who was arrested and charged with treason in 2020 without any evidence presented publicly. Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in September, according to the publication.
“We, independent Russian journalists and representatives of civil society, support our foreign colleagues who take upon themselves the great risks of working in Russia," the letter said. "We demand that our colleague Evan Gershkovich be set free immediately.”