The United States envoy to the United Nations has made a direct appeal to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, urging him to release two US citizens currently detained in Russia.
During a UN Security Council meeting on Monday chaired by Lavrov, Linda Thomas-Greenfield pushed Russia to free former US Marine Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.
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“I am calling on you, right now, to release Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich immediately, to let Paul and Evan come home. And to cease this barbaric practice once and for all,” the ambassador said at the UN’s headquarters in New York City.
She added that the men were being used as “political bargaining chips” and “human pawns”.
“Using people as pawns is a strategy of weakness. These are not the actions of a responsible country. And while Russia plays political games, real people suffer,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Earlier this month, the administration of US President Joe Biden formally designated Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained”. Russia arrested him in late March on accusations of espionage.
The Wall Street Journal and press freedom groups have dismissed the allegations as baseless, and Washington has repeatedly called on Moscow to release the journalist.
For his part, Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges that the US also rejects as false.
Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, was in the UN Security Council chamber on Monday, and Thomas-Greenfield urged Lavrov to “look into her eyes and see her suffering”.
“I want you to see what it’s like to miss your brother for four years. To know he is locked up, in a Russian penal colony, simply because you want to use him for your own ends,” the US envoy said.
Later in the day, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan took a moment to “recognise and lift up” Elizabeth Whelan’s remarks at a White House press briefing.
“She is an incredible voice for all of us who are outraged by the practice of wrongful detention,” Sullivan said.
He also criticised Russia for having “spurned” attempts to bring Whelan back to the US. “We’ll keep working until we’ve brought Paul home, and we’ll keep working until we’ve brought Evan home and all Americans globally who are wrongfully detained or being held hostage,” Sullivan said.
Late last year, Russia released US basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained in Moscow last year on drug possession charges, as part of a prisoner swap that did not include Whelan, raising concerns about his fate.
The relationship between Washington and Moscow has deteriorated following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, and the detention of Griner and other US citizens has added to those tensions.
On Sunday, Russia accused the US authorities of denying visas to journalists who wanted to cover Lavrov’s trip to New York, and the Russian foreign minister suggested that Moscow would take retaliatory measures.
“A country that calls itself the strongest, smartest, free and fair country has chickened out and done something stupid by showing what its sworn assurances about protecting freedom of speech and access to information are really worth,” Lavrov said before leaving the Russian capital.
“Be sure that we will not forget and will not forgive,” he said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov added that his country “will find ways to respond to this, so that the Americans will remember for a long time not to do this”.
The US Department of State did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Associated Press news agency about the claim of refused visas.