In Rare Call With Lavrov, Blinken Demands Release of Imprisoned American Journalist

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Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Sunday that he had spoken with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, to demand the release of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who has been imprisoned in Russia.

In a rare call between the two men since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Mr. Blinken called the arrest of Mr. Gershkovich an “unacceptable detention.” He also called for the release of another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan.

Russia’s foreign ministry said Mr. Blinken had initiated the call. In a statement, the ministry repeated the Kremlin’s claim that Mr. Gershkovich had been caught “red-handed” committing “illegal activities” — a charge that the United States and the Wall Street Journal have vehemently denied.

Earlier on Sunday, Brittney Griner, the American basketball star who was detained for almost 10 months by Russia last year, urged the U.S. government to use “every tool possible” to secure Mr. Gershkovich’s release.

“We must do everything in our power to bring him and all Americans home,” Ms. Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, wrote in a statement they posted on Instagram, in which they also thanked President Biden for his efforts to bring imprisoned Americans home.

Russian authorities announced that Mr. Gershkovich had been arrested on Thursday, saying that he was “suspected of spying in the interests of the American government.” Mr. Gershkovich has denied the allegation, which his employer has also strongly rejected. If convicted, Mr. Gershkovich would face up to 20 years in a Russian penal colony. (Acquittals in espionage cases in Russia are virtually unheard-of.)

Tensions between the United States and Russia have become increasingly strained since Russia began preparing for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

Ms. Griner, a W.N.B.A. star, was arrested in Russia last February and given a nine-year sentence on drugs charges after the authorities said they had found vape cartridges containing a cannabis extract in her luggage. Her case became an international cause because she was seen as a hostage held by Mr. Putin’s government as Russia was subjected to international sanctions in response to its invasion of Ukraine a week after her arrest.

The Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap stalled for months as Ms. Griner was sent to a penal colony outside Moscow. She was freed in December in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as “the Merchant of Death” who was serving a 25-year weapons-trafficking sentence.

A prisoner swap also helped secure the release last year of a former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed, who had been held for two years on what his family said were false charges of assaulting two Moscow police officers. Mr. Reed was released in April at the same time as Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who had been serving a lengthy drug-smuggling sentence in the United States.

However, the Russian authorities have signaled that it is too early to discuss such a swap in Mr. Gershkovich’s case. Sergei A. Ryabkov, a deputy foreign minister, said on Thursday that previous prisoner exchanges “took place for people who were already serving sentences.”

Other Americans remain in captivity in Russia, including Mr. Whelan, also a former Marine, held since 2018 and convicted in 2020 of espionage charges that the United States has described as manufactured; and Marc Fogel, a history teacher who was detained in 2021 for having a small quantity of medical marijuana. A person briefed on the negotiations said last year that the United States had sought to free Mr. Whelan, as well as Ms. Griner, in exchange for releasing Mr. Bout.

Ms. Griner has previously encouraged “everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home.”

“Every family deserves to be whole,” she wrote on Instagram.

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