WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers in Pennsylvania are urging the State Department to acknowledge the plight of a Pittsburgh-area resident who was sentenced to forced labor in Russia, and they’re asking why the administration hasn’t put his case prominently among other detained citizens, including WNBA player Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
Oakmont resident and Butler native Marc Fogel was sentenced in June to 14 years in a high-security Russian penal colony after being held in the country for about a year. The longtime international educator was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport last August for possession of approximately 20 grams of medical marijuana.
On Tuesday, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Greene, co-edited a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken asking the nation’s top diplomat to “immediately classify Fogel as wrongfully detained and to ensure that he is included in all negotiations to bring American prisoners home to Russia.”
The letter garnered bipartisan support from nine members of the U.S. House delegation from Pennsylvania, including Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, Mike Kelly, R-Butler and Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon.
“While he may not carry the notoriety of a famous WNBA athlete, we believe it is essential that the Biden administration work to bring Mr. Fogel home safely to his family. Brittney Griner’s wife received a call from President Joe Biden, but Mr. Fogel’s family struggled to even get a response from the State Department,” the lawmakers wrote.
The correspondence comes amid ongoing tensions between Washington and Moscow over its brutal war in Ukraine and as the State Department has reportedly offered Russia a deal to trade a convicted Russian arms dealer in exchange for the release of Griner and Whelan.
On Thursday, Griner, 31, a two-time Olympic champion and eight-time WNBA star, was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison. She was arrested in February for allegedly having vape cartridges containing cannabis oil when she arrived in Moscow to play basketball in the city of Yekaterinburg.
The family of Fogel, who turned 61 last week, called the length of the prison sentence imposed on the well-traveled high school history teacher who suffers from back pain ‘almost a death sentence’ chronicles.
The State Department did not immediately respond Thursday when asked for a response to the letter.
In June, a spokesperson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the department was aware of Fogel’s case and “monitoring the situation,” but did not elaborate on why he was not granted wrongful detention status. citing confidentiality considerations.
The US State Department has classified Griner and Whelan as having been “wrongfully detained,” a designation that allows their cases to be handled by the Office of the President’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
A White House inquiry also received no immediate response.
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