A bipartisan group of senators is calling on the State Department to take action in the case of Marc Fogel, the American teacher who is currently imprisoned in Russia.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, the nine senators asked that the department designate Fogel, who has been incarcerated in Russia for roughly a year, as “wrongfully detained.”
Fogel, 61, was arrested in August 2021 after he allegedly attempted to enter Russia with 17 grams of medical marijuana, a violation of Russian law. He was sentenced to 14 years in a Russian penal colony. The senators said that Fogel was carrying the marijuana to alleviate chronic pain, as recommended by a doctor.
“While we understand the State Department has previously requested Mr. Fogel’s release on humanitarian grounds due to his poor medical condition, we strongly urge that the Administration to escalate Mr. Fogel’s case by designating him as ‘wrongfully detained,’” the letter reads.
Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) all signed the letter, which was first reported by CNN.
The senators listed six of 11 established criteria to qualify for the “wrongfully detained” label that Fogel meets, including that his incarceration is “being used substantially to influence U.S. policy, specifically requiring the concession of a prisoner swap.”
They argued that designating Fogel as “wrongfully detained” would “provide the warranted level of support to Marc Fogel’s family after a year of communication with Mr. Fogel only via mail and, most importantly, will require the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to secure Mr. Fogel’s freedom.”
“We cannot allow Mr. Fogel to be used as a political pawn by Vladimir Putin,” they added.
Earlier this month Russian authorities said they were in talks with the U.S. about potential prisoner swaps, but Fogel’s name was not included in the report from TASS Russian News Agency. The announcement only mentioned basketball player Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years, and Paul Whelan, the former Marine detained in 2018 who is serving a 16-year prison sentence.
Kelly Leguineche, Fogel’s niece, told CBS News it was “devastating” when Fogel’s name was not mentioned in news reports of the prisoner exchange talks.
“It’s devastating because it feels like this was our last opportunity to save his life, and we just couldn’t get the momentum we needed for it to matter to them,” she said.
Fogel has been an educator for 35 years, according to the senators’ letter, spending time in Malaysia, Mexico, Colombia, Oman, Venezuela and Russia. He was returning to Russia last August to teach at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, which was supposed to be his final year of work before retirement.
The senators argued that while Fogel did break Russian law, his sentence was “grossly disproportionate to similar cases.” The most common sentence for an offense similar to Fogel’s, according to Russian lawyers cited by the senators, is five years of probation, adding, “Drug traffickers who have committed much worse offenses have received shorter sentences.”
“Mr. Fogel’s recent 14-year sentence to a maximum-security penal colony for possession of less than an ounce of medical marijuana can only be understood as a political ploy by Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime,” the group wrote.
“Mr. Fogel, a 61-year-old with severe medical conditions, has already been detained for a year. The United States cannot stand by as Mr. Fogel wastes away in a Russian hard labor camp,” it added.
Reached for comment, a State Department spokesperson told The Hill that while they do not comment on congressional correspondence, the department “take[s] seriously our commitment to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation.”
“The Department reviews cases of U.S. nationals detained abroad to determine whether they are wrongful detentions. We review the totality of the circumstances and assess the facts of the case against numerous criteria,” the spokesperson added.