US says Russia rejected ‘substantial’ proposal to free two jailed Americans

Washington says ‘no higher priority’ than effort to secure release from Russia of Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan.

Evan Gershkovich pictured in court in October
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich denies the charges against him [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo]

The United States has said Moscow rejected what it said was a “substantial” proposal to secure the freedom of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich and former US Marine Paul Whelan who are jailed in Russia over alleged spying.

“We have made a number of proposals, including a substantial one in recent weeks,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on Tuesday.

“That proposal was rejected by Russia,” he said, without going into further detail on the offer.

Miller said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden would keep trying to find a way to free the pair, considered “wrongfully detained” by the State Department.

The designation means the US considers the charges against the two men to be bogus and politically motivated.

“They never should have been arrested in the first place. They should be released immediately,” Miller said.

“There is no prior higher priority for the secretary of state. There is no higher priority for the president.”

The United States, despite a sharp deterioration of ties since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, arranged a prisoner swap with Moscow a year ago that brought home basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for jailed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in July that it was in contact with the US about prisoner swaps but that such discussions needed to take place in “complete silence”.

Gershkovich was arrested during a reporting trip at the end of March and accused of spying, charges he and the Wall Street Journal deny.

The 32-year-old has been held in custody pending trial and a Moscow court last week extended his detention until January. He faces as long as 20 years in prison if found guilty.

Gershkovich’s sister in October urged the Biden administration to remain focused on trying to bring him home from a Russian prison, and expressed concern that the Middle East crisis may distract Washington from hostage diplomacy in other countries.

Whelan worked in security for a US vehicle parts company when he was arrested in Moscow in 2018. The former Marine was convicted of espionage in 2020 and jailed for 16 years. Whelan says the evidence against him was falsified and he and the US government have denied he is a spy.

Whelan’s family said last week that he had been assaulted in prison.

The 53-year-old was punched in the face and forced to defend himself at a sewing workshop in a high-security penal colony in Russia’s Mordovia region southeast of Moscow, his brother said in a statement.

The Mordovia regional prison service confirmed the attack to the Interfax news agency and that guards had intervened. Both men were taken to the medical bay with Whelan suffering an abrasion beneath one of his eyes.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies