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Two Americans are being held in Russia on espionage charges


The Biden administration's Hostage Affairs Office is handling two big cases in Russia. The administration says it considers The Wall Street Journal reporter who was jailed on espionage charges to be, quote, "wrongfully detained." And it is still trying to get Russia to negotiate an end to another espionage case against a former U.S. Marine. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested at the end of March and just this week deemed a wrongfully detained American. President Biden says that designation makes a difference.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're making it real clear that it's totally illegal what's happening. And we declared it so - changes the dynamic.

KELEMEN: On board his flight to Ireland, the president called Gershkovich's family, and officials told reporters that the administration is focused on that case - also on Paul Whelan, who was jailed at the end of 2018. Paul's brother David says both Americans are falsely accused of espionage.

DAVID WHELAN: Our family has been, in a sense, reliving those first weeks of Paul's detention as we've seen Mr. Gershkovich's case unfold.

KELEMEN: David Whelan says his brother was able to call home Monday after nearly two weeks of silence.

WHELAN: He said to our parents that having another American obviously could complicate the ability for the U.S. government to make concessions. And, of course, he has experienced already twice being left behind. So I think just generally he's concerned that it may be - there may be a third time.

KELEMEN: The Biden administration has swapped prisoners twice with Russia, most recently to win the release of basketball star Brittney Griner. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since made what he calls a substantial offer to the Russians to win Paul Whelan's release. His brother is calling for more pressure.

WHELAN: It's been almost four months, maybe longer, that that substantial deal has been made to the Russians, and they haven't taken it - that it may be time for the U.S. government to escalate.

KELEMEN: Despite repeated public calls, U.S. diplomats still haven't even had consular access to the newest U.S. detainee, the reporter from The Wall Street Journal. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.