What does ‘wrongfully detained’ mean?

The State Department on Monday said that Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia last month and charged with espionage, was “wrongfully detained.”

Mr. Gershkovich, 31, a son of Soviet Jewish émigrés, was detained on March 29 in the city of Yekaterinburg while he was on a reporting trip, and put under formal arrest in Moscow. He was formally charged with espionage on Friday, and is being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. Russia has provided no evidence for the charge, and the U.S. government and The Wall Street Journal have vehemently denied the accusation of spying.

According to Russian news agencies, an appeal challenging the arrest has been filed, and a hearing had been scheduled on April 18. President Biden, the State Department and Senate leaders have called for Mr. Gershkovich’s immediate release.

More than 50 American citizens are listed as wrongfully detained in adversarial countries, including China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

Here is a look at the nature of these detentions and the process of seeking to free those being held.

What does ‘wrongfully detained’ mean?

Generally, an American who is held by a foreign government for the purposes of influencing U.S. policy or extracting political or economic concessions from Washington is considered “wrongfully detained.” In these cases, negotiations between the United States and the other government are key to securing the American’s freedom.

The State Department does not release the precise number of Americans that it has determined are in that category. But a senior State Department official said last summer there were 40 to 50 wrongfully detained Americans abroad.

“Hostage” is a blanket term used to describe Americans who have been blocked from leaving a foreign country. Some are held by terrorist organizations or other groups with whom the State Department does not have diplomatic relations. In these cases, the F.B.I. and other intelligence or law enforcement agencies lead negotiations.

According to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named for a journalist who was killed in Syria by the Islamic State in 2014, more than 50 Americans are wrongfully detained abroad or being held hostage.

What is the State Department doing to get them released?

The State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs handles negotiations for wrongfully detained Americans.

The office has grown to about 25 negotiators and other officials in recent years, up from five, as more Americans are detained by foreign governments. Each case is assigned an expert on the country where the person is being held.

The process is extremely difficult, said the senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named to describe some functions of the office.

All of the foreign governments that are detaining Americans have, at best, rocky relations with the United States. In some cases, messages are sent through other governments that serve as intermediaries; in others, U.S. officials work through levels of the foreign government’s bureaucracy to get to someone senior enough to influence a decision.

The communications are intended to reinforce the consequences of continuing to hold Americans captive, the official said.

He said foreign governments often felt as if they were the aggrieved party and usually began with demands that he called unreasonable.

The State Department does not provide legal assistance to the detained Americans or their families.

Does the United States pay ransom or swap prisoners?

A 2015 directive by President Barack Obama prohibits promising “ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes or other acts of concession” to bring detained Americans home. The policy takes away key incentives for hostage takers to detain Americans in the first place and prevents the exchange of U.S. revenue or other resources that could be used for other nefarious activities, the document notes.

But there have been numerous prisoner swaps with foreign governments to free detained Americans — most recently Brittney Griner, a W.N.B.A. star and two-time Olympic gold medalist.

She was detained in Russia in February of 2022, days before that country’s invasion of Ukraine, after officials found hashish oil in her luggage on arrival at an airport near Moscow. She was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. She was freed on Dec. 8 in a prisoner exchange for a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout.

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