The State Department on Monday designated Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia and charged with espionage earlier this month, as “wrongfully detained,” a finding that means the U.S. government sees him as the equivalent of a political hostage and reflects its belief that the charges are fabricated.
Mr. Gershkovich was arrested by Russian security services in late March and formally charged last week with espionage, an accusation that his employer vehemently denies.
A finding of wrongful detention changes the U.S. government’s approach to the imprisonment of an American citizen abroad, including by transferring primary responsibility for such cases to the office of the presidential envoy for hostage affairs. The classification can be based on any one of several findings by the government, including that the prisoner was detained on arbitrary grounds, or is not facing legitimate charges or a fair judicial process.
Mr. Blinken hinted at the determination when asked about Mr. Gershkovich during a visit to Brussels last week.
“In my own mind, there is no doubt that he is being wrongfully detained by Russia,” he said, noting that an internal process was still underway to reach that conclusion on an official basis.
Monday’s statement about Mr. Gershkovich also reflected a concern among U.S. officials that his case appears to signal an even more severe Kremlin crackdown on independent media and the free flow of information within the country.
“Journalism is not a crime,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, said in the statement. “We condemn the Kremlin’s continued repression of independent voices in Russia, and its ongoing war against the truth.”
Mr. Patel’s statement called on Russia to release Mr. Gershkovich, 31, as well as Paul Whelan, another American imprisoned on strongly disputed espionage charges, whom the department says is wrongfully detained.
Russia this past weekend provided its first formal notification to the U.S. government of Mr. Gershkovich’s detention, but has still not granted consular officials in Moscow access to him, Mr. Patel said at a daily press briefing earlier on Monday.
Wrongful detention is a classification created by Congress in the 2020 Robert Levinson Act, named after a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent abducted and held for more than a decade by Iran until his presumed death.
The act requires that the cases of wrongful detainees be transferred to the hostage affairs office, which coordinates the entire government’s efforts to free the imprisoned Americans, while drawing on the expertise of the office’s experienced hostage negotiators.
That step makes it practical for the government to consider a prisoner exchange, something the U.S. would be less likely to propose in the case of an American deemed to have committed a genuine criminal offense in another country and to have been convicted after a fair judicial process.
The Levinson Act also instructs the hostage affairs office to provide the families of detained persons with timely updates about their cases and U.S. government efforts to assist them.
The U.S. had also deemed as wrongfully detained two other Americans recently imprisoned in Russia, the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner and the former Marine Trevor Reed. Both were released in separate prisoner swaps with Moscow over the past year.
Some experts say that freeing Mr. Whelan has been more difficult than in those cases because, unlike Ms. Griner and Mr. Reed, he is an accused spy, and that the Russians expect President Biden to free a captured Russian spy in exchange for his return. The same could apply to Mr. Gershkovich.
But the United States is not known to be holding any Russian intelligence agents, and in any event might be reluctant to reward a false Russian charge of espionage by trading one for an innocent American.
Ms. Griner and Mr. Reed, both charged with relatively common criminal offenses — drug possession and assaulting a police officer, respectively — were exchanged for Russians also imprisoned on criminal charges unrelated to espionage.
Mr. Blinken spoke earlier this month to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, about Mr. Gershkovich, demanding his release and that of Mr. Whelan.