A group of Congress members consisting of both Democrats and Republicans is pressing the State Department to use its diplomatic resources to make the task of ensuring the release of former U.S. diplomat Marc Fogel from Russian prison a priority.
In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the bipartisan lawmakers noted that Fogel was detained by Russian authorities in August 2021 over 17 grams of medical marijuana (MMJ). Fogel, who previously worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, was employed as an English teacher at the Anglo-American School also in Moscow. At the time of his arrest, Fogel had a doctor's recommendation for MMJ from a physician in Pennsylvania to treat chronic back pain. Despite this, Fogel was sentenced on June. 16 2022 to “unconscionable, 14 years of hard labor.”
“In light of the Moscow court’s August 25 decision to deny Mr. Fogel’s appeal and his ongoing transfer to a penal colony, we again request that you consider immediately classifying Mr. Fogel as wrongfully detained and prioritize your work to bring him safely home to his family,” the letter reads.
The effort was led by Reps. Conor Lamb (D-PA) and Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), but also signed by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jon Tester (D-MT), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Mike Lee (R-UT), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TC), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Dwight Evans (D-PA), and Seth Moulton (D-MA).
This letter comes around two months after a similar coalition of bipartisan senators led by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) urged the State Department to classify Fogel as wrongfully detained. The previous letter was signed by nine senators, including a few who are against cannabis reform.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jon Tester (D-MT), Steve Daines (R-MT), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) joined Casey on August letter. They questioned why the State Department is negotiating the release of WNBA superstar Brittney Griner over a similar, low-level cannabis offense while Fogel’s case is not receiving the same degree of political attention and diplomatic intervention.
After all, the U.S. State Department confirmed that Griner was being “wrongfully detained” two months after she was arrested at a Moscow airport and accused of having cannabis oil in her luggage.
What “Wrongfully Detained” Actually Means
According to a May statement from State Department spokesperson Ned Price, regulators examine 11-point criteria to determine if the case warrants a wrongful detention designation. The change in official designation normally signals a significant shift in how officials will work to gain the release of a prisoner held in a foreign country. Generally, an American held by a foreign government for the purpose of influencing U.S. policy or extracting political or economic concessions from Washington is considered “wrongfully detained.”
“Various Members of Congress from Pennsylvania as well as Senators from across the country have urged the State Department to take further action, including classifying Mr. Fogel as wrongfully detained. Unfortunately, this designation process has stalled while Mr. Fogel’s health is deteriorating, and his physical safety remains at risk,” the lawmakers wrote.
“The State Department has had ample time to reconsider the designation of Mr. Fogel, as over 120 and 50 days respectively have passed since his sentencing and appeal. We implore you to give this case the priority and gravity it deserves,” the letter concludes.
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