Family pleads for U.S. teacher imprisoned in Russia: ‘We’re not forgetting my brother’
Anne Fogel, of Missoula, Montana, stands on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, July 13, 2023, between meetings with U.S. senators about securing the release of her brother, Marc Fogel, who has been detained in Russia since August 2021. (Ashley Murray/States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — Days after meeting with high-level White House officials, the family of an American teacher imprisoned in Russia walked the halls of the U.S. Capitol complex Thursday, pleading with U.S. leaders to remember that Marc Fogel is staring down a 14-year sentence in a penal colony on a marijuana charge.
Fogel, 61, an international baccalaureate history teacher from Pennsylvania with a lengthy resume, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in August 2021. He was accused by Russian authorities of having marijuana in contact lens cases and cannabis oil e-cigarette cartridges in his luggage.
He was convicted in June 2022 and subsequently sentenced for “large-scale drug smuggling,” according to international news media reports quoting a Russian interior ministry statement.
Fogel is currently serving his sentence in Rybinsk, about six hours north of Moscow.
“We’re letting (lawmakers) know we’re still here, we’re still waiting, we’re still pushing,” Marc’s sister Anne Fogel told States Newsroom on Thursday outside the Capitol after a long day of meetings with U.S. senators.
35-year teaching career
Marc Fogel was about to begin his 10th and final year of teaching at the Anglo-American School of Moscow, closing out a 35-year career teaching abroad in Malaysia, Mexico, Colombia, Oman, Venezuela and Russia, where he instructed the children of U.S. and other international diplomats.
He then planned to retire with his spouse, Jane, at their home in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, just northeast of Pittsburgh.
The teacher, who will turn 62 later this month, suffers from chronic pain after multiple surgeries on his back, knees, hips and rotator cuff, according to his family. Fogel walks with a limp, as one of his calf muscles atrophied over the years from numerous complications. Medical marijuana was part of Fogel’s pain management regimen; he refused to take opioids.
“That will be another birthday that he probably spends in a penal colony, which makes me very sad,” another sister, Lisa Hyland, told States Newsroom by phone from Ohio Township, Pennsylvania. “I worry about his health. He’s not that healthy to begin with. He has chronic pain and degenerative disease.”
Anne, a resident of Missoula, Montana, and Marc’s son, Ethan, met on Thursday with several lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who posted a photo of the meeting on Twitter.
Daines wrote: “Marc Fogel has been wrongfully detained in Russia since 2021, and I’ve been working closely with the Fogel family to press the Biden administration to escalate efforts to bring him home as soon as possible.”
But the administration has not declared Fogel “wrongfully detained.”
The family and lawmakers have been fighting for over a year for the special designation that triggers actions across government agencies to prioritize the release of an American detained abroad.
Friends, former students and loved ones plan to rally in front of the White House Saturday to pressure the administration to apply the same designation granted to other Americans jailed in Russia — including WNBA star Brittney Griner, U.S. Marine veterans Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, and Russia’s most recent American detainee, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.
President Joe Biden, speaking from Finland on Thursday, told reporters he is “serious about a prisoner exchange” for Gershkovich’s release.
“I’m serious about doing all we can to free Americans who are being illegally held in Russia or anywhere else for that matter. And that process is underway,” Biden said at the presidential palace in Helsinki during a joint press conference with Finland’s leader.
Jane and Ethan met with White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on July 6.
Administration officials are trying to “manage” the family’s expectations for a release, according to Anne, who is speaking for the Fogels.
“I think the priority is Evan Gershkovich at this point because Marc isn’t ‘wrongfully detained,’” Anne said.
The White House did not respond to multiple inquiries for comment about the meeting.
Other Americans ‘wrongfully detained,’ released
Gershkovich, an American journalist and son of Soviet refugees, was detained by Russian Federal Security Bureau agents in late March at a steakhouse in Yekaterinburg and arrested on espionage charges — charges that he, the Wall Street Journal and the Biden administration deny.
The Journal correspondent faces up to 20 years in prison and was declared “wrongfully detained” by the U.S. State Department on April 10.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in interviews with CBS and MSNBC on July 11, said that he is “very much focused on” Gershkovich’s release, as well as the release of Whelan, who was arrested on spying charges at a Moscow hotel in 2018 and sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in a penal colony.
“I’m determined to bring Evan home, to bring Paul home, to bring others home,” Blinken told CBS Mornings’ Gayle King. “I have nothing that I can share with you right now. I can just tell you generally that even when we have profound, very profound differences with Russia, for example over Ukraine, that doesn’t mean that we’re not working to try to bring home Americans who are being unjustly detained.”
Fogel’s severe punishment is comparable to the nine-year sentence Russian officials levied on professional basketball player Griner — a U.S. Olympic gold medalist and six-time WNBA All Star — for having cannabis oil vape cartridges in her luggage, which she maintains were packed by accident, according to numerous media reports.
Griner was detained in February 2022, a week before Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine. (Russia forcefully occupied Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.) The U.S. State Department declared Griner “wrongfully detained” and negotiated her December 2022 release in exchange for convicted Russian international arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Bout was sentenced in 2012 after revealing years earlier to a confidential source for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency that he was planning to sell weapons worth millions of dollars — explosives, light aircraft, hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, 30,000 AK-47 firearms and 10 million rounds of ammunition — to guerilla fighters in Colombia who planned to use them to attack U.S. helicopters.
In April 2022, U.S. officials swapped former Russian pilot and convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko for the release of Reed, who was declared “wrongfully detained” by the U.S. government after he was sentenced to nine years for assaulting two Russian police officers — charges he denied.
According to the family’s account of the incident, Reed was inebriated, and possibly drugged, during a visit to Russia to see his girlfriend in August 2020. When those around him called for help, police took Reed into custody rather than to a medical facility.
Yaroshenko was convicted in 2011 for conspiring to transport a portion of a 4,000-kilogram shipment of cocaine to the U.S. via Liberia.
The Marc Fogel Act
Frustrated by unanswered requests for the State Department to designate Fogel “wrongfully detained,” a bipartisan delegation of Pennsylvania representatives in the U.S. House introduced the Marc Fogel Act in June.
The legislation would compel the State Department to communicate to Congress within 180 days of reviewing evidence of Americans detained abroad.
“What this bill does is pushes and requires the State Department to report to Congress about these wrongful detention designations and why they do or don’t make them,” said freshman Democratic Rep. Chris Deluzio, who represents Fogel’s district. “In Marc’s case, he’s not been designated as wrongfully detained and that designation is an important part of our government putting its power behind getting someone brought home.”
The bill would add the mandate to the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, the law that established the criteria for the special designation. The law is named after retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who is presumed to have died in Iranian custody after his disappearance in 2007.
“Marc Fogel meets six of the eleven criteria established by the (Levinson Act) to be designated as wrongfully detained,” GOP Rep. Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania said in a statement upon the act’s introduction. “Since last year, I have urged the State Department to classify him as wrongfully detained and prioritize securing his release.”
The lawmakers included Fogel in a House resolution in mid-June calling for the immediate release of Gershkovich and Whelan.
The State Department does not comment on pending legislation.
“The Department continuously reviews the circumstances surrounding the detentions of U.S. nationals overseas, including those in Russia, for indicators that they are wrongful. The U.S. government continues to call on the Russian government to release Marc Fogel on humanitarian grounds. We take seriously our commitment to assist U.S. citizens abroad and to provide all appropriate consular assistance,” a State Department spokesperson said.
A companion bill has not been introduced in the Senate.
U.S. senators from Pennsylvania, along with the House delegation, wrote numerous letters to the administration last Congress and into this session.
“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. 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,” Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania wrote last August with former GOP Sen. Pat Toomey and colleagues.
Others who signed the letter to Blinken included Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Daines and Jon Tester of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Joe Manchin III and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Tim Kaine of Virginia.
Casey has been instrumental in arranging meetings between the Fogel family and Congress, Anne said.
Pennsylvania’s freshman Democratic U.S. Sen. John Fetterman’s office said in a statement that Fogel’s case “is not a political matter, this is a humanitarian matter.”
“John has been working with his colleagues in the Senate and the House to make sure that we can get Marc home as soon as possible,” the statement read. “We are in close consultation with the State Department to make sure every possible step is taken to free Marc from Russian captivity.”
In May, Marc and Anne’s 94-year-old mother, Malphine, accompanied Anne on a whirlwind 14 meetings with lawmakers. Marc’s other son, Sam, and Anne’s son pleaded the family’s case in 17 meetings in June.
“We’re here just letting them know that we’re not forgetting my brother,” Anne said. “And that he needs to be designated as wrongfully detained.”
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