U.S. imposes sanctions on Russia, Iran for hostage-taking

US journalist Evan Gershkovich, arrested on espionage charges, stands inside a defendants’ cage before a hearing to consider an appeal on his arrest at the Moscow City Court in Moscow on April 18, 2023. 

Natalia Kolesnikova | Afp | Getty Images

WASHINGTON —  The Biden administration on Thursday announced a first round of sanctions targeting Russia and Iran for engaging in hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of U.S. citizens abroad.

The U.S. sanctions take aim at Russia’s Federal Security Service, often known as the FSB, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence Organization, or IRGC-IO, for “being responsible for or complicit in, directly or indirectly engaged in or responsible for ordering, controlling or otherwise directing the wrongful detention of a U.S. national abroad.”

Two senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity per ground rules established by the White House, said Thursday’s sanctions were underway before Russian authorities detained American citizen Evan Gershkovich last month.

Gershkovich, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, was arrested in late March on allegations of espionage. The State Department has formally moved to declare Gershkovich’s detention a wrongful one, which opens up additional resources to secure his release.

The Biden administration and leadership at The Wall Street Journal have denied Russian claims that Gershkovich is a spy.

The administration has identified at least two American citizens who are wrongfully detained in Russia and three in Iran, along with one legal permanent U.S. resident.

One administration official said relevant families were briefed on the new sanctions ahead of Thursday’s announcement.

The Department of Treasury also announced sanctions on the following individuals in Iran:

  • Ruhollah Bazghandi, an IRGC-IO counterintelligence official, has been involved in the detention of foreign prisoners held in Iran. The department says his work for the IRGC-IO includes assassination plots against journalists, Israeli citizens and others deemed enemies of Iran.
  • Mohammad Kazemi, commander of the IRGC-IO, oversees operations suppressing civil society in Iran, including the regime’s crackdown against protests across the country in response to the killing of Mahsa Amini, according to the department. He was previously designated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control in October.
  • Mohamad Mehdi Sayyari, co-deputy chief of the IRGC-IO, has been directly involved in arranging logistics for prisoners in Iran.
  • Mohammad Hasan Mohagheghi, co-deputy chief of the IRGC-IO, serves as a liaison between senior IRGC officials and IRGC-IO officials on counterespionage operations in Syria, the department said.

“Our action is a warning to those around the world who would wrongfully detain U.S. nationals, the potential consequences of their actions,” a senior administration official said on a call with reporters.

“These actors in Russia and Iran have tried to use Americans for political leverage or to seek concessions from the United States. These actions threaten the stability and integrity of the international political system. It also threatens the safety of U.S. nationals and other persons abroad,” the person added.

“Sanctions are meant to change behavior and to incentivize better behavior and we hope that these can contribute to doing that now and into the future,” the second official said.

‘I no longer know what my brother looks like’

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is being held on suspicion of spying, in the courtroom cage after a ruling regarding extension of his detention, in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 22, 2019.

Shamil Zhumatov | Reuters

Russia has detained several American citizens in high-profile incidents in recent years.

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan was arrested by Russian authorities in 2018 on charges of acting as a spy for the United States. At the time he was arrested, Whelan was visiting Moscow to attend a wedding, according to his brother, David Whelan. 

Paul Whelan was convicted in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor in a Russian camp in the remote province of Mordovia.

During opening remarks before Monday’s U.N. Security Council meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield spoke directly to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and called for the immediate release of Gershkovich and Whelan, who are both detained in Russia.

Thomas-Greenfield invited Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan, to attend a U.N. Security Council meeting.

“I want minister Lavrov to look into her eyes and see her suffering,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “I want you to see what it’s like to miss your brother for four years. To know he is locked up, in a Russian penal colony, simply because you want to use him for your own ends.”

Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan, stands as she is acknowledged by U.S. Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield during a Security Council meeting at the United Nations headquarters on April 24, 2023 in New York City.

Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images

“I no longer know what my brother looks like. The images that we see on television and in the news? That’s Paul Whelan in the life he was living before he was taken captive. No one has been allowed to take a photo of him since his trial almost three years ago,” Elizabeth Whelan told reporters at the United Nations.

She drew several similarities between her brother and Gershkovich, including the espionage charges levied against them and their subsequent detainments at Lefortovo prison.

“This Russian playbook is so lazy that even Evan has the same investigator, a man who harassed and interrogated my brother until Paul’s sham trial in June of 2020,” she added.

In December, President Joe Biden signed off on a prisoner swap that would release WNBA star Brittney Griner in exchange for a Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death” because he was considered one of the world’s largest illicit arms dealers, was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in 2012.

The negotiations for Griner’s release originally included Whelan as well.

“I’m proud that today we have made one more family whole,” Biden said at the time, adding that he would continue to work to free Whelan. “We’ll keep negotiating for Paul’s relief. I guarantee it.”

Griner, who played professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested in February 2022 at a Russian airport on accusations that she was smuggling vape cartridges with cannabis oil. The two-time Olympic gold medalist was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony before her release.

U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, looks on inside a defendants’ cage before a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia August 2, 2022.

Evgenia Novozhenina | Reuters

Last April, Russia agreed to release former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in a prisoner exchange with the United States.

Reed was accused of assaulting a Russian officer and detained by authorities there in 2019. He was later sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. Reed and his family have maintained his innocence, and the U.S. government has described him as unjustly imprisoned.

For Reed’s release, Biden agreed to free Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

Former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was detained in 2019 and accused of assaulting police officers, stands inside a defendants’ cage during a court hearing in Moscow, Russia March 11, 2020.

Tatyana Makeyeva | Reuters

At the time, Reed’s family thanked Biden and also said they would continue to advocate on behalf of Whelan.

Biden, who did not specifically mention the prisoner exchange in a statement, said his administration would not “stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends.”

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