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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Sunday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and called for the “immediate release” of detained Americans Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, according to the US State Department.

“Secretary Blinken conveyed the United States’ grave concern over Russia’s unacceptable detention of a U.S. citizen journalist,” a readout from the department said.

“Secretary Blinken further urged the Kremlin to immediately release wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan,” the readout continued, adding that the secretary and Lavrov “also discussed the importance of creating an environment that permits diplomatic missions to carry out their work.”

Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Russia, was detained last week on charges of espionage – the first time an American journalist has been detained on such accusations by Moscow since the Cold War. US officials in Moscow had not yet been granted consular access to Gershkovich as of Sunday.

Whelan, meanwhile, is serving out a 16-year prison sentence for the same charges, which he strongly denies. His brother David Whelan said in an email to the press Thursday that his family was sorry to hear “that another American family will have to experience the same trauma that we have had to endure for the past 1,553 days.”

Whelan has been designated as wrongfully detained by the US State Department, and Gershkovich is expected to receive the same designation but had not yet as of Sunday morning.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Sunday’s phone call was initiated by the US and that Lavrov told Blinken that Gershkovich’s fate would be determined by a Russian court.

Lavrov also blamed Washington and the Western press for politicizing the arrest.

“It was emphasized that it is unacceptable for officials in Washington and Western media to hype up [the issue] with the clear intention of giving this case a political coloring,” the statement said.

Gershkovich is currently being held in the notorious Lefortovo pre-detention center until May 29. He faces up to 20 years in prison on espionage charges.

Sunday’s call was only the third time that Blinken has spoken with his Russian counterpart since the war in Ukraine began, and all of those conversations have discussed detained US citizens. The two spoke in person for the first time since the war broke out on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers meeting in India last month, and Blinken said he raised the issues of the war, Russia’s suspension of its participation in the New START nuclear agreement, and Whelan’s ongoing detention.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee on Sunday expressed support for the Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate with Russia for Gershkovich’s release.

“Certainly the Biden administration should continue its efforts to negotiate and to try to get the release of this journalist, but overall, people should be very cautious about staying in Russia,” Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

Turner noted that the US government “gave people notice that they should get out of Russia” and said he would continued to encourage people to do so. The Biden administration has echoed those assessments. While the Kremlin has asserted that Russia is safe for accredited journalists, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told CNN on Friday, “Russia is not safe for Americans.”

This story has been updated with additional reaction.


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