A bipartisan group of U.S. senators on Tuesday urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to designate an American teacher sentenced to 14 years in prison in Russia as “wrongfully detained.”
Marc Fogel, a longtime educator, was arrested in August 2021 at a Russian airport after local authorities found 17 grams of medical marijuana in his belongings. Fogel was on his way back to Russia to teach at the Anglo-American School in Moscow.
In June, he was sentenced to 14 years in a maximum-security Russian penal colony.
“The United States cannot stand by as Mr. Fogel wastes away in a Russian hard labor camp,” the senators wrote in a letter to Blinken. The letter was first reported by CNN.
The lawmakers added that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, explaining medical marijuana was recommended to Fogel as a treatment for chronic pain.
“Though Mr. Fogel did violate Russian law by bringing 17 grams of marijuana to the country, his sentence is grossly disproportionate to similar cases,” the letter reads. “As Russian lawyers have pointed out, the most common sentence in similar cases is five years of probation. Drug traffickers who have committed much worse offenses have received shorter sentences.”
The nine senators include: Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.); Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Steve Daines (R-Mont), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
The bipartisan group argued Fogel was being “used as a political pawn” by Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding the educator qualifies for the “wrongfully detained” classification by meeting six of the 11 criteria, including “being detained substantially because he is a U.S. citizen.”
The senators also referred to the efforts the White House has made to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison on drug possession charges after she was arrested for carrying cannabis oil in vape containers in her suitcase at a Moscow airport in February. Her lawyers appealed her sentence on Aug. 15.
Blinken offered Russia a prisoner exchange deal to trade Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan for Russian drug dealer Viktor Bout. Both Griner and Whelan have been designated as “wrongfully detained.” Earlier this month, Russian news agency TASS reported talks were underway.
“Fogel’s case warrants the same degree of political attention and diplomatic intervention,” the senators said.
Last month, John Kirby, the national security council coordinator for strategic communications at the White House, did not directly answer a question on why Fogel was not part of the proposed deal.
“We’re focused on all Americans who are held hostage and wrongfully detained around the world. What we’re talking about with this particular proposal is for those two individuals,” Kirby said, referring to Griner and Whelan.
“That doesn’t mean that we’re not also working in real-time on other Americans who are unjustly detained around the world,” he continued.
Fogel’s niece Kelly Leguineche told CBS News their family was not given a clear answer by the State Department as to why Fogel hasn’t been designated as “wrongfully detained,” or why he was not part of the exchange deal.
“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,” Leguineche said.
Fogel was teaching in Russia for the past nine years and previously worked in other countries around the world including Malaysia, Mexico, Colombia,
Oman and Venezuela.