US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he has “no doubt” that Russia has wrongfully detained an American reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was arrested last week on spying allegations.
However, Mr Blinken said a formal determination of Evan Gershkovich’s wrongful detention has not yet been made, something that would elevate the priority of his case within the US government.
Mr Blinken said the legal process for such a determination would be completed soon.
“I’ll let that process play out.
“In my mind, there is no doubt that he is being wrongfully detained by Russia,” Mr Blinken told reporters.
Mr Blinken’s comments at Nato headquarters in Brussels came just days after he directly urged his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to immediately release Mr Gershkovich as well as another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, who had already been determined to have been wrongfully detained.
Mr Blinken made that demand in what was a rare phone call with Lavrov since Russia invaded Ukraine early last year.
When the US government formally designates an American as wrongfully detained, it shifts supervision of the person’s case to a specialised State Department section — the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs — that is focused on negotiating for the release of captives.
The designation empowers the government to use a variety of tools, including diplomacy, to secure the release of a captured American rather than simply waiting for a criminal case to make its way through the system.
Lawyers for Mr Gershkovich, the son of immigrants from the Soviet Union who grew up speaking Russian at home in Princeton, New Jersey, have appealed over his arrest.
The FSB, Russia’s top security agency and a successor to the KGB, said Mr Gershkovich was trying to obtain classified information about a Russian arms factory.
He is the first US correspondent to be held on spying accusations since the Cold War.
In its summary of Sunday’s phone call, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Mr Lavrov “drew Blinken’s attention to the need to respect the decisions of the Russian authorities” about Mr Gershkovich, who Moscow claims, without evidence, “was caught red-handed”.
The Kremlin said Mr Lavrov also told Mr Blinken it was unacceptable for US officials and Western news media to continue “whipping up excitement” and politicising the journalist’s detention.
“His further fate will be determined by the court,” Mr Lavrov said.