What Evan Gershkovich’s “Wrongful Detainment” Means for His Future

There’s an old Siberian fairy tale based on the friendship between a bear and a chipmunk. One day, the bear who was feeling especially friendly and in a good mood decided to give the chipmunk a pat on the back. However, due to its sharp claws, the bear ended up giving the small critter three scars on its back, giving Siberian folk an explanation about why chipmunks have three lines running down their hind.

This was the story that Evan Gershkovich, American journalist and reporter at The Wall Street Journal predominantly covering Russia, used to highlight the relationship between Russia and the Soviet Union’s former satellite states like Kazakhstan with the bear obviously representing Russia and the chipmunk delineating Kazakhstan. Gershkovich took a similar approach in a plethora of his other articles (both written and video-recorded), eventually resulting in his detainment by Russia’s Federal Security Service on charges of espionage in March 2023.

His detainment shook the world as it was the first time an American journalist had been arrested on charges of spying in Russia since the Cold War period, marking an indubitable increase in tensions between the United States and Russia and, taking a step forward, prognosticating the future of the relationship between these two global superpowers. These said tensions have only escalated with the flow of international support that Gershkovich has received following his arrest from news organizations around the world including his employer, the Wall Street Journal, as well as many global leaders. In fact, President Joe Biden hailed him for his “absolute courage” and said that he is “working hard” to secure his release. At a press conference for NATO following a meeting with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov, President Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken officially stated that Gershkovich has been “wrongfully detained.”

Although these two words seem to be a simple summary describing the United States’ stance on the issue, it is important to understand the context of this designation by the US Federal Government and what it means for the future of both this case and for other journalists who have fallen victim to Russia’s malpractice of detaining those who, with vast knowledge and scholarly judgment, speak the truth and provide their own input.

When officially applied in terms of US nationals being held abroad, according to Emma Tucker who currently serves as the editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, the label of being “wrongfully detained” can make the process of securing the release of the detainee “move a bit more rapidly.”

Once this official recognition is announced by the US State Department, the case moves from the Bureau of Consular Affairs into the hands of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA). The latter office only focuses on the release of American hostages in foreign nations by both handling negotiations and advocating for the detainee and their family. SPEHA also provides resources and recommendations to the White House pertaining to the negotiations, including special sanctions to place on countries who are at fault.

The Levinson Act, passed by Congress in June of 2020, serves as a set of guidelines that specifies what should be considered as a case of “wrongful detainment.” The criteria is primarily based on factors concerning the individual such as their nationality or their right to exercise their rights. In Gershkovich’s case, his detainment relates to his freedom of the press, explaining why Secretary Blinken officially claimed that Gershkovich was, indeed, “wrongfully detained.” Other parts of the bill discuss the situation of the detainee including whether they are placed in inhumane conditions or if they were denied due process of law.

However, unfortunately, meeting this criteria has not worked out for every US national detained in Russia. Although Britney Griner (detained February to December 2022) and Trevor Reed (detained August 2019 to April 2022) were both successfully brought back to the US after being given the status of “wrongfully detained,” there are a handful of cases where this has not helped, namely Paul Whelan. Whelan, a former US marine who was charged for spying and espionage in Russia was arrested on December 28, 2018. Although the US labeled him as “wrongfully detained” immediately after his arrest, he received a 16-year prison sentence on June 15, 2020.

As we can see, the US State Department’s designation of being “wrongfully detained” greatly supports Evan Gershkovich’s release from Russia with the American government implying the clear message that Russia, in this case, is at fault. However, despite past successes with US negotiations for foreign detainees, there is always the saddening possibility of a failed arrangement for the journalist’s release. Although this should be quite obvious to us Americans who have the privilege of a democratic system in which rights are protected, there is only one more statement to be said: journalism is not, and should not, be a crime.



Hello! My name is Krishna Mano and I am a 9th Grader at City High School. This is my third year writing for the City Voice and first year as an editor. Apart from the newspaper, I am part of the Speech and Debate team, Student Ambassadors, and a board member of the NHS. Outside of school, my most favorite hobbies are reading, playing the violin, public speaking, skiing, and paddleboarding. If you have any questions about my articles, please contact me at krishna.mano.thecityvoice@gmail.com.

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