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Russia rejects offer to bring home two Americans, state department said

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested for alleged spying, listens to the verdict in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, June 15, 2020. Moscow News Agency photo via AP

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has made a new and significant offer aimed at securing the release of American detainees Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich, but Russia has rejected the offer, the State Department said Tuesday.

Not included in the proposal was Butler County native Marc Fogel, a former teacher who has also been detained in Russia for over two years. Russian authorities charged Fogel with “large-scale drug smuggling” after he was caught crossing the Russian border while possessing half an ounce of medical marijuana.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller did not reveal the details of the offer nor why Russia had turned it down, but the revelation of the proposal was a fresh indication that Washington is continuing to try to negotiate with Moscow to get both men home.

“This was a new proposal, in recent weeks. It was a significant proposal,” Miller said. “And it was rejected by the Russians but it does not, it will not deter us from continuing to do everything we can to try and bring both of them home.”

The U.S. government has declared both Whelan and Gershkovich to be wrongfully detained.

Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, has been jailed in Russia since his December 2018 arrest on espionage-related charges that both he and the U.S. government dispute. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison,

Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was detained in March while on a reporting trip to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, about 1,200 miles east of Moscow.

Gershkovich and the Journal deny the allegations, and Russian authorities haven’t detailed any evidence to support the espionage charges. A Russian court last week extended the detention until Jan. 30.

“They never should have been arrested in the first place. They should be released immediately,” Miller said. “But we have made a number of proposals and including a substantial one in recent weeks and we will continue to work every day to bring Evan and Paul Whelan home. There is no prior higher priority for the Secretary of State. There is no higher priority for the president.”

In July 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed that the U.S. had made a substantial proposal to Moscow to get home WNBA star Brittney Griner and Whelan. Griner was ultimately released in December in a prisoner swap with notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, but Whelan was not part of the deal.

Fogel was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Unlike Gershcovich, Whelan and Griner, Fogel has not been designated as “wrongfully detained” by the State Department.

Friends and family members have campaigned relentlessly to bring the Fogel case to the attention of the U.S. government, including a protest at Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., which drew over 100 participants.

Marc’s mother, Malphine, said Tuesday the family has heard little from the State Department since the rally, although Fogel’s case has drawn the attention of U.S. reps. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th, and Mike Kelly, R-16th.

“It’s up to the State Department to do something, and they’re not willing, I guess,” Malphine said. “He got a murderer’s sentence for having medical marijuana, for which he had the prescription in his suitcase.”

In late June, Reschenthaler introduced the “Marc Fogel Act,” which would require the State Department to be more transparent about how it decides who is and who isn’t wrongfully detained. No action has been taken on the act since it was first introduced in the House.

For now, the family is urging residents to send Christmas cards to Fogel to raise his spirits during his third holiday season behind bars in Russia.

“He thought when they released Brittany Griner, he’d be on that plane with her,” Malphine said. “That didn’t happen.”

Eagle staff writer William Pitts contributed to this report.

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