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Evan Gershkovich Marks One Year in Russian Prison
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Evan Gershkovich Marks One Year in Russian Prison

The Wall Street Journal reporter’s arrest shines a light on Americans detained around the world.

Happy Monday, and happy Easter to our readers who celebrated on Sunday! We hope it was a blessed and joyful day. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tel Aviv and other cities across Israel Saturday evening, calling for both the return of the hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ouster. The weekend’s demonstrations—the largest since the war’s start—came ahead of a Monday deadline for the coalition government to agree to a new law regarding whether the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community should keep its exemption from the military draft, which has divided the secular and religious conservative members of Netanyahu’s coalition. Additional mass protests demanding the release of the abductees in Gaza began outside of the Knesset in Jerusalem on Sunday and are expected to continue through Wednesday night. Meanwhile, Netanyahu underwent surgery for a hernia Sunday evening, temporarily transferring his duties to Justice Minister Yariv Levin.
  • Jeffrey Donaldson—the leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which supports remaining in the United Kingdom—resigned Friday after he was charged with “non-recent” sexual offenses. After a two-year boycott, Donaldson last month ushered the DUP into a power-sharing agreement with Sinn Féin—a party that favors becoming a part of Ireland—that may now be at risk with a DUP leadership change. 
  • Friday marked one year in Russian prison for Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in Yekaterinburg, Russia, last March while on a reporting trip and accused of espionage—charges he and his employer deny. The State Department has designated the journalist “wrongfully detained” and called for his immediate release. “To date, Russia has provided no evidence of wrongdoing for a simple reason: Evan did nothing wrong,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on the anniversary of Gershkovich’s arrest. “Journalism is not a crime.” 
  • Turkey’s largest opposition party swept municipal elections on Sunday, holding or taking control in the country’s five largest cities—including the capital, Ankara—and dealing a blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice Development Party (AKP). In Istanbul, the largest city in the country, residents reelected Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) to a second term, cementing Imamoğlu as a serious challenger to Erdoğan.
  • The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, increased 2.5 percent year-over-year in February, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported Friday—ticking up from a 2.4 percent annual rate one month earlier. After stripping out more volatile food and energy prices, core PCE increased at a 2.8 percent annual rate in February, stubbornly—though expectedly—above the Fed’s 2 percent target. 
  • The Food and Drug Administration on Friday issued its highest level warning—short of pulling a product from the market and reserved for products that may cause “serious injury or death”—for an Impella heart pump connected to 49 deaths and more than 100 serious injuries since it was approved in 2008. The alert warned of the potential for injuries from the device—which is used to help support a patient’s heart—due to “operator handling” and requested that information about the risks be added to the device’s instruction manual. 
  • Former President Donald Trump and several co-defendants on Friday asked an appeals court to review Judge Scott McAfee’s decision allowing Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to remain on the sprawling racketeering case against Trump and his co-defendants accused of attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia. In a decision last month, McAfee ruled that Willis was allowed to remain in charge of the case despite having a romantic relationship with a special prosecutor she hired—provided the special prosecutor resigned, which he did. It’s not clear whether the appeals court will take up the defendants’ request. 

The Challenge of Bringing Americans Home 

An illustration of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested on espionage charges in Russia, is displayed during the WSJ Tech Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, on October 16, 2023. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
An illustration of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested on espionage charges in Russia, is displayed during the WSJ Tech Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, on October 16, 2023. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

On March 29, 2023, Evan Gershkovich arrived at a steakhouse in Yekaterinburg—a Russian city in the Ural Mountains—during a reporting trip, ready to meet with a source. Gershkovich didn’t know it would be the last thing he did as a free man: Russian security agents led him out of the restaurant. As of Friday, the Wall Street Journal reporter has been in detention at the notorious Lefortovo prison in Moscow for a year. 

Gershkovich—accused of espionage by Russian authorities—is one of dozens of Americans currently being detained wrongfully overseas, including several others held in Russia. The process of bringing people home often takes years, and when official channels stall, cases can hinge on the personal efforts of a handful of non-government actors working on behalf of the detainees’ loved ones.

Gershkovich has spent much of the past year in solitary confinement, with one hour each day spent outside in a small prison courtyard. The world has caught glimpses of him only in photos and videos from a dozen court appearances where his detention has been repeatedly extended. Evan is the first American journalist detained in Russia on espionage charges since 1968, but both the Journal and the U.S. government strongly deny the spying charges against him.

“Every day is very hard—every day we feel that he is not here,” Ella Milman, Evan’s mother, told the New York Times last week. “We want him at home, and it has been a year. It’s taken a toll.” Evan keeps in touch with his family and friends through weekly letters. Anyone can write him a letter through a website his friends created, which translates the notes into Russian—a prison requirement—and sends them to Gershkovich.

“I type up my letters via email and, weeks or months later, receive photographs of Evan’s handwritten responses, his Russian script sometimes hurried, his sign-offs upbeat and warm,” Linda Kinstler, a friend of Gershkovich’s, wrote last week. “‘Hello from sunny Moscow!’ he wrote to me recently. He has always had a sense of humor.”

The Wall Street Journal has been a relentless advocate for Gershkovich’s release, coordinating support and public advocacy. The paper ran a blank front page on Friday—where Gershkovich’s story should have been—to mark the anniversary of his detention. “We remain optimistic and we have to remain optimistic,” Paul Beckett, an assistant editor at the Wall Street Journal helping lead the effort to free his colleague, said on Friday. “We also believe that all of the attention that we’re bringing to this in the media with individuals all over the world rooting for Evan’s release does create the necessary environment for the government negotiations that will ultimately free him to take place.”

The Biden administration has repeatedly said that it’s committed to bringing Gershkovich home. “We will continue working every day to secure his release,” President Joe Biden said in a statement on Friday. Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted a promise to bring Gershkovich home, as well as Paul Whelan, a former marine detained in Russia since 2018. The State Department has classified both Gershkovich and Whelan as “wrongfully detained,” an official designation outlined in the 2020 Levinson Act, named after former FBI agent and Iranian hostage Robert Levinson. That designation requires U.S. officials to examine criteria like credible information indicating an individual’s innocence and whether it’s clear a person is being detained “solely or substantially because he or she is a U.S. national,” but a designation is ultimately left up to the State Department “based on an assessment of the totality of the circumstances.” Once the Secretary of State deems someone “wrongfully detained,” the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs has a mandate to work to bring the individual home.

Advocates for bringing Americans held hostage abroad home heralded the passage of the Levinson Act, but also noted that gaps still remain in the designation process. “That law was really, really effective and useful on so many levels,” Mickey Bergman, a co-founder of Global Reach, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works on behalf of hostages’ families, told TMD. But Bergman argued the State Department’s designations lacked transparency, often frustrating families whose loved ones aren’t on the list—like Marc Fogel, a 61-year-old schoolteacher who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2021 and sentenced to 14 years in prison for possession of a half ounce of medical marijuana. The designation “created a fictional line in the sand that if an American is not designated as ‘wrongfully’ detained by the State Department, then there’s really nobody in the government who is in charge of trying to get them back home,” Bergman added.

President Barack Obama established the position of Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs in 2015 after a review of the government’s hostage policy. Diane Foley—the president of the James Foley Legacy Foundation, founded in honor of her son James Foley, an American freelance journalist captured and then murdered by the Islamic State in Syria in 2014—participated in the 2015 policy review that led to the creation of the special envoy and the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a multi-agency group housed at the FBI to unify government efforts to recover hostages. (Diane Foley also worked with lawmakers to pass the Levinson Act.)

The U.S. has brought dozens of Americans home in recent years under the new protocols, but not without tradeoffs. In December, 10 Americans held in Venezuela were released in a prisoner exchange. The Biden administration also brought home five Americans from Iran last September in exchange for unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian assets. Critics of the latter deal argued the payment was functionally a ransom that would only incentivize more hostage-taking. 

In Russia, though, U.S. officials face a dilemma: More Americans are wrongfully detained in the country than there are prisoners in the U.S. for whom the Russian government is interested in negotiating. Highlighting this asymmetry, the U.S. was reportedly negotiating a deal to free Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Whelan, and Gershkovich in exchange for a Russian assassin imprisoned in Germany. The exchange fell through when Navalny died in a Siberian prison in February.

Bergman and Global Reach work—often successfully—to bring home Americans the NGO itself assesses to be wrongfully detained, independent of the State Department designation. Global Reach, founded a few months ago, continues the work of the late Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico governor, ambassador to the United Nations, and member of Congress. During and after his time in public office, Richardson conducted private missions on behalf of the families of American hostages, helping to free people held in Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Myanmar, Russia, and elsewhere. 

Bergman worked alongside Richardson for more than 15 years as executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. The pair helped with the prisoner exchange that freed Brittney Griner, the WNBA player held in Russia for almost a year, and assisted in the exchange that freed Trevor Reed, a former Marine detained in Russia for more than two years. Last January, the organization also secured the release of Taylor Dudley, a U.S. Navy veteran, who had been held captive for nine months after being arrested by Russian border police for crossing into Kaliningrad, Russia.

Organizations like Global Reach offer an element of independence from official channels that can sometimes make the difference in negotiations. “We don’t work for any government,” Bergman told TMD. “We don’t receive funds from the U.S. government. We’re purely working at the request of families and at no cost to them.” 

“It’s really, really hard for officials from the two governments to actually talk about only the prisoners without the rest of the issues coming into play,” he added. “We—because we don’t work for [a] government, we don’t have any government authority—are able to stay focused on only the issue of the prisoners and therefore be able to experiment with some things, some ideas, and figure out the pathways for this.” 

In the case of Dudley—who was never designated wrongfully detained by the State Department—Richardson’s team negotiated his release essentially on their own. “When you have a case, one of the things that is key, at least in the way we work at Global Reach, is to … develop what we refer to as the theory of return,” Bergman said, “What are the terms or the way in which that person comes back home?” For Dudley, Bergman added, “the theory of return on him was actually dependent on him not being designated by the State Department,” he said. “The Russians basically told us, ‘Hey, let’s just solve it through legal means through us,’ and that’s what we did. He ended up being deported from Kaliningrad, [Russia], and we picked him up and brought him back home.”

But for every success story, there’s another American detained far from home, often serving extreme sentences for minor crimes or on flimsy evidence. And in another bucket are Americans taken hostage arbitrarily, under no pretense of wrongdoing whatsoever. Five Americans—Edan Alexander, Omer Neutra, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, Sagui Dekel-Chen, and Keith Siegel—are believed to still be alive and in Hamas captivity in Gaza after being captured by the terrorist organization last October.*

But among state actors, Russia is arguably the worst offender. Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested last May while visiting Russia on a charge of failing to register her passport—Russian officials are reportedly considering additional charges that could carry a 15-year prison sentence. The Russian security service arrested Russian-American Ksenia Khavana in February, claiming she was raising money for the Ukrainian military—Khavana had reportedly donated $51 to a Ukrainian charity and was helping fundraise for disaster relief aid to Ukraine. 

Russian authorities extended Gershkovich’s detention by another three months on Tuesday, and it’s unclear whether there’s a deal on the table that would secure his release. Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested in February in an interview with Tucker Carlson that he’d consider a prisoner exchange for Gershkovich’s release but didn’t specify a timeline or details—a week after the interview, Navalny died.

Americans detained in Russia have found themselves stuck at a low point in the post-Cold War U.S.-Russia relationship, which may make negotiating their release all the more difficult. “We focus so much on national interest, and we absolutely neglect personal relationships,” Bergman said. “It’s personal relationships, it’s informal conversations. And sometimes it’s just when you create enough of [an] emotional attachment and an emotional accountability with somebody, you can leverage that and get people home just because of that relationship that you have.” 

Worth Your Time

  • For National Review, Jack Butler meditated on running and Christianity. “The Gospel of John contains an amusing detail about Jesus’s Resurrection not found in the other gospels,” he wrote. “Informed by Mary Magdalene that His tomb was empty following His crucifixion, Peter and ‘the other disciple whom Jesus loved’ (John himself) rushed to the scene. ‘They both ran,’ John recounts, ‘but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first.’ Perhaps, like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, John believed that God made him for a purpose, but also made him fast, and wanted posterity to remember that. Regardless, neither he nor Peter could at first make sense of what they saw. ‘For they did not understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead.’ Comprehension came later, when the resurrected Lord appeared to the disciples (sans Thomas). … Runners know well the strange mix of exhaustion and satisfaction that can come with a race’s end. Here it is not just a physical and emotional state but a spiritual one with an eternal reward. Christians spend our lives running toward that empty tomb—some faster than others, perhaps. To be a Christian is to believe that the risen Lord is gone from the tomb, but He is not gone from us. Rather, He is with us always, until the end of the age. And He is running alongside us—whatever our difficulties may be—every step of the way.”
  • Last year, New York City set up an artificial intelligence chatbot—like the well-known ChatGPT—specifically designed to offer New Yorkers advice on starting and running businesses in the city. “The problem,” Colin Lecher reported for The Markup and The City, “is that the city’s chatbot is telling businesses to break the law. Five months after launch, it’s clear that while the bot appears authoritative, the information it provides on housing policy, worker rights, and rules for entrepreneurs is often incomplete and in worst-case scenarios ‘dangerously inaccurate,’ as one local housing policy expert told The Markup. … It’s hard to know whether anyone has acted on the false information, and the bot doesn’t return the same responses to queries every time. At one point, it told a Markup reporter that landlords did have to accept housing vouchers, but when ten separate Markup staffers asked the same question, the bot told all of them no, buildings did not have to accept housing vouchers. … New York City’s bot, according to the initial announcement, would let business owners ‘access trusted information from more than 2,000 NYC Business web pages,’ and explicitly says the page will act as a resource ‘on topics such as compliance with codes and regulations, available business incentives, and best practices to avoid violations and fines.’ There’s little reason for visitors to the chatbot page to distrust the service. … One small note on the page says that it ‘may occasionally produce incorrect, harmful or biased content,’ but there’s no way for an average user to know whether what they’re reading is false.” 

Presented Without Comment

Wall Street Journal: Harvard University Applications Fall by 5%

Also Presented Without Comment

New York Times: Police Raid Peruvian President’s Home, Looking for Rolex Watches

Also Also Presented Without Comment

The Hill: Lara Trump Drops Single, Teases Future Songs for ‘Liberal Media’ 

Toeing the Company Line

  • Associate audio and video producer Victoria Holmes answered reader questions in March’s Monthly Mailbag
  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics crew checked in on the Michigan Senate race, Jonah panned monocausal explanations and false binaries, Nick questioned the wisdom (🔒) of Trump’s critics skirting norms to keep him in check, and Chris argued (🔒) RFK Jr.’s vice presidential pick suggests a pivot to the left.
  • On the podcasts: Jonah ruminated on monocausality on the latest episode of The Remnant, and Jamie discusses Israel’s tactics in Gaza with urban warfare expert John Spencer on the Dispatch Podcast
  • On the site over the weekend: Michael Lucchese looked back at an Alfred Hitchcock film that warned against isolationism, Christopher J. Scalia explored how we make—and remake—the literary canon, and Jake Meador reflected on Easter’s rejection of the anxiety and urgency of our present moment. 
  • On the site today: Nat Malkus dives deep into the lingering effects of COVID-19 on K-12 education and Bradley Vasoli argues against protectionism. 

Let Us Know

Should private groups like Global Reach have a role in negotiating the release of Americans around the world?

Correction, April 1, 2024: This newsletter originally said six Americans are believed to still be alive in Hamas captivity. One of those six, Itay Chen, was confirmed dead in March.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.