Russia has rejected an American proposal to bring home Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich and former marine Paul Whelan, two Americans jailed in the country that the State Department have declared to be wrongfully detained.
The Biden administration made a fresh offer to bring them home, but the State Department said on Tuesday that the Russians refused it. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told the press that the US put forward several suggestions.
“This was a new proposal, in recent weeks. It was a significant proposal,” Mr Miller said, according to the AP. “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.”
“They never should have been arrested in the first place. They should be released immediately,” Mr 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.”
The spokesperson didn’t state why the deal was rejected or if it included Russians being released.
In the face of a steep downturn in relations with Russia, the US has been able to arrange two prisoner swaps since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
One of the swaps saw WNBA star Brittney Griner return home after she was found to have cannabis in her luggage, in exchange for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout.
Mr Gershkovich was detained in March of this year while reporting in Yekaterinburg. He became the first Western reporter to be detained in Russia on charges of spying since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The 32-year-old, his employer and the US government all strongly reject the notion that he was involved in spying.
Last week, his detention was extended until next month by a court in Moscow.
Mr Whelan was arrested in Moscow in 2018 while working in security for a US vehicle parts company. From the beginning, he has strenuously argued that the evidence against him was falsified. He has been sentenced to 16 years in prison. His family said last week that he was assaulted in his Russian prison, possibly because he’s an American.
The incident happened while Mr Whelan was working at a sewing table at around 1.30pm on Tuesday last week, his brother, David Whelan, said in an emailed statement provided to The Independent.
Paul Whelan had asked a new prisoner to move because he was blocking part of the production line he was working on. After several requests, the prisoner did not budge but instead allegedly hit Mr Whelan in the face, breaking his glasses.
The prisoner reportedly then tried to strike the American a second time, but he blocked the attempt.
Other prisoners intervened to stop the attack from continuing, the statement said. Paul Whelan later reported the attack to the prison camp’s deputy warden. It is now being investigated by the prosecutor’s office.
“Paul says he believes the prison administration is taking the attack seriously.
“It is too early to know whether they will take steps to ensure his safety in the future, both from this prisoner and others who may decide they have nothing to lose by attacking Paul.”
The family also contacted the human rights ombudsman and a recording of the phone call was shared with the US Department of State (DOS) and National Security Council.
According to the statement, David Whelan found out about the attack from a phone call his brother had with their parents. He described the incident as relatively minor.
“He is also concerned that these sorts of attacks can occur any time and, due to various sharp implements in the workshop, including the shears the other prisoner was holding today, could escalate into a far more serious attack,” the statement read.
David Whelan said he believes his brother was targeted because he’s American, explaining that anti-American sentiment is not uncommon among other prisoners. The former marine is currently serving his sentence at a labour camp in Mordovia.
His family has launched a campaign to secure his release. The US has designated him a wrongful detainee, meaning that the DOS is constantly working to bring him back to the US.
Paul Whelan was given the designation shortly after his arrest. The DOS alleges that Russia subjected the former marine to a “secret trial” based on “secret evidence”.