Former Gov. Bill Richardson calls for ‘Brittany Griner-type campaign’ to free WSJ reporter and other American detainees

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(WASHINGTON) — Nearly a week after Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia, former Gov. Bill Richardson, an expert on political prisoner negotiations, called the journalist’s detention “unacceptable” and spoke about what it may take to free Gershkovich and other Americans detained abroad.

“We’re working on cases in Russia with other Americans that don’t have the celebrity status of Brittney Griner. But what is needed is a Brittney Griner-type campaign that involves the public, that involves international issues. That involves putting pressure on the Russians and our administration to get this done,” Richardson told ABC News.

Griner is a basketball star who was arrested in Russia and detained for 10 months last year before her release in December 2022. Griner was released in a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was detained in the U.S.

Richardson and his namesake center work on behalf of families of political prisoners and hostages in foreign countries. Last week, the Richardson Center helped secure the release of Navy veteran James Frisvold, who was held in Guerrero, Mexico, for 13 years in “de-facto pretrial detention for a crime he did not commit,” the organization said in a news release.

The Richardson Center only gets involved in such cases if the prisoner’s family reaches out to them and requests it, which Gershkovich’s family hasn’t done, Richardson said.

“My foundation works for families at no cost to them, but we don’t want to interfere, and it has to be their request. We work with the [White House] administration, too, but they don’t tell me what to do, but we coordinate with them. So it has to be an overall effort,” Richardson said.

Gershkovich was detained last week in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg on suspicion of espionage. Russia’s Federal Security Service has accused the reporter of spying and collecting “state secrets” — which the White House has called “ridiculous.”

The Wall Street Journal said in a statement it “vehemently denies” the allegations against Gershkovich. More than three dozen of the world’s top media organizations called for Gerskhovich’s release in a letter to Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

When asked why he believes Gershkovich is being held, Richardson pointed to the “deterioration” of U.S.-Russia relations. He also views the arrest as a “tit for tat” after the U.S. Justice Department charged Russian national Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov with spying for Russia under the guise of a Brazilian graduate student. The third reason, Richardson said, is that Russia views the case as an “espionage issue.”

“Evan is not a spy. He’s a journalist doing this job. But the Russians have increased level of confrontation with this arrest, and we have to deal with this at the highest level,” Richardson said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Sunday to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and urged for Gershkovich’s “immediate release,” the State Department said.

Richardson, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, called for an “international effort,” in Gershkovich’s case, because the issue is not limited to American journalists. “Journalists across the world are being detained,” he said.

Richardson was also involved with recent efforts to bring home WNBA star Brittney Griner and U.S. Marine Trevor Reed.

“The Russians don’t give up anything for free. They want prisoner exchanges. They want Russians in America that are detained,” Richardson said.

There are about 70 wrongfully detained Americans around the world, Richardson said.

Gershkovich has pleaded not guilty to the spying charges. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

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