Joe Biden has said he is serious about pursuing a prisoner exchange for the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been detained in Russia for more than 100 days, and claimed the process was “under way”.
“I’m serious on a prisoner exchange,” Biden told reporters on Thursday when asked about Gershkovich’s continued detention in Russia.
“And I’m serious about doing all we can to free Americans being illegally held in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter, and that process is under way,” Biden, who was completing a four-day visit to Europe during which he visited the UK, Lithuania and Finland, added.
The Kremlin last week suggested it could be open to a possible prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich, but reaffirmed that such talks must be held away from the public eye.
“We have said that there have been certain contacts on the subject, but we don’t want them to be discussed in public,” Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said.
“They must be carried out and continue in complete silence.”
Gershkovich, 31, is the first western journalist arrested and accused of espionage by Moscow since the Soviet era, amid a sharp deterioration of relations over the Ukraine war.
The US, the Wall Street Journal and Gershkovich strongly deny the spying claim. Russian authorities have not provided any evidence to support the charge against Gershkovich.
Shortly after his arrest, Gershkovich was designated by the US state department as wrongfully detained.
He is being held at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, known for its grim conditions, and could face a sentence of up to 20 years if found guilty. A Moscow court recently upheld a ruling to keep him in custody until 30 August.
In an interview this week with ACB News, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, the parents of Gershkovich, said Biden personally promised “to do whatever it takes” to bring Gershkovich home.
While both sides have now shown their willingness to engage in a prisoner exchange, Russia has previously suggested that it would only trade Gershkovich after a court delivers its verdict in the espionage case against him. In Russia, legal proceedings, including pre-trial detention and the actual trial, can sometimes stretch for more than a year.
The Journal earlier this week reported that Putin held direct oversight over the detention of Gershkovich, receiving video briefings before and after his arrest by the FSB’s counter-intelligence service
Last December, Russia freed the US basketball star Brittney Griner, who was arrested on drug charges, in return for the release of Viktor Bout, imprisoned in the US for weapons smuggling. Another American, the Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government have called baseless.