Antony Blinken talks to Russia-detained US citizen Paul Whelan, vows effort to free him

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that he spoke with Paul Whelan, a former Marine detained in Russia, as he vowed sustained efforts to free him as well as jailed journalist Evan Gershkovich.

Speaking alongside his Canadian counterpart at an event on hostage diplomacy, Blinken said he spoke by telephone with Whelan on Monday.

“Our intensive efforts to bring Paul home continue every single day, and they will until he and Evan Gershkovich and every other American wrongfully detained is back with their loved ones,” Blinken said at the Wilson Centre, a think tank in Washington.

Whelan, who was working in security for a US vehicle parts company in Russia, was detained in December 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage, charges he and the US government deny.

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Gershkovich, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, was arrested in March 2023 on a reporting trip in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

He is the first Western journalist since Soviet times to be charged by Russia with spying, allegations vehemently denied by Gershkovich, his employer and the US government.

The White House said in December that it was preparing a new proposal to free the two Americans after Russia rejected an earlier offer, which the State Department had described as “substantial”.

Washington has recently carried out two prisoner swaps with Moscow, including for the release of basketball star Brittney Griner, despite a breakdown in most diplomacy due to the Ukraine war.

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Putin in an interview released last week with conservative US talk show host Tucker Carlson said that “an agreement can be reached” to free Gershkovich.

Canada in 2021 launched a coalition to oppose the arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for political reasons after the detention of two of its citizens in China.

The pair, freed in late 2021 after three years imprisonment, were held in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou on a US warrant.

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, speaking at the event, said that 75 countries had joined the coalition. “Together we’re sending a strong message that this practice will not be tolerated. Citizens cannot be used as pawns in a geopolitical game,” Joly said.

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