US says Russia rejected proposal for release of Paul Whelan, Evan Gershkovich

By Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Russia in recent weeks rejected a substantial new proposal for the release of Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich, two Americans considered by the U.S. to be “wrongfully detained” in Russia, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Tuesday.

Miller declined to provide details on what Washington proposed and it was the first time the United States revealed such a proposal had been made. Whelan and Gershkovich have been charged in Russia with spying, which they deny.

“In recent weeks, we made a new and significant proposal to secure Paul and Evan’s release. That proposal was rejected by Russia. We shouldn’t have to make these proposals. They never should have been arrested in the first place. They should both be released immediately,” Miller told reporters.

“It will not deter us from continuing to do everything we can to try and bring both of them home.”

The proposal was not for other detainees, Miller said.

Arrested in 2018 in Russia, Paul Whelan was convicted of espionage in 2020 and handed a 16-year sentence. Whelan and the U.S. government have denied he is a spy.

Journalist Gershkovich was arrested on March 29 in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on charges of espionage that carry up to 20 years in prison. He and his employer, the Wall Street Journal, have denied the charges and the newspaper called for his immediate release.

Russia has said Gershkovich was caught “red-handed” while the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said he was trying to obtain military secrets.

The White House has called the charges “ridiculous” and President Joe Biden has said Gershkovich’s detention is “totally illegal.”

The designation “wrongfully detained” means the U.S. considers the charges against the two men to be bogus and politically motivated.

Gershkovich’s sister in October urged the Biden administration to remain focused on trying to bring him home from a Russian prison, and expressed concern that the Middle East crisis may distract Washington from hostage diplomacy in other countries.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis; additional reporting by Kanishka Singh; editing by Grant McCool)