A bipartisan group of senators is asking the State Department to do more to try and secure the release of American teacher that is currently imprisoned in Russia.
The teacher, Marc Fogel, 61, was arrested in Russia in August 2021 after trying to enter the country with 17 grams of medical marijuana.
Fogel was subsequently sentenced to 14 years in a Russian penal colony for violating their drug laws and has already been imprisoned for over a year.
The teacher maintained that he was only using the marijuana to alleviate chronic pain after it was recommended by his doctor. He has underwent three back surgeries, a spinal fusion, a hip replacement, and two knee surgeries — none of which stopped the discomfort.
On Tuesday, nine senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking for Fogel to be listed as “wrongfully detained.”
“We write with grave concern for the safety of Mr. Marc Fogel, a U.S. citizen currently imprisoned in Russia, and urge you to designate him as ‘wrongfully detained’ under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act,” the letter begins. “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.”
The lawmakers noted that Fogel has worked as an international educator for 35 years in Malaysia, Mexico, Colombia, Oman, Venezuela and, for the last nine years, in Russia.
When he was arrested, Fogel was flying back to Russia to teach at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, which educates the children of American and other international diplomats. It was going to be his last year teaching before retiring.
The senators acknowledged that Fogel broke the law, but noted that his sentence appears to be “grossly disproportionate to similar cases.”
“As Russian lawyers have pointed out, the most common sentence in similar cases is five years of probation,” the letter said. “Drug traffickers who have committed much worse offenses have received shorter sentences. For example, in 2019 Alexander Grigoriev received an eight-year sentence from the same Khimkinsky court for contraband and possession of 1,500 grams of various narcotics. Sentences similar to Mr. Fogel’s are typically reserved for serious drug traffickers like Guido Guillermo Walters, who received 15 years in 2018 for the contraband and sale of more than 105,000 grams of cocaine.”
The letter stated that the extended sentence was “politically motivated” and deserves the same level of concern as that of Women’s National Basketball Association player Brittney Griner, who is also imprisoned in Russia for travelling with marijuana.
“While Ms. Griner was only recently sentenced, the Khimkinsky court sentenced Mr. Fogel more than 60 days ago, and there are reports that the court could adjudicate his appeal any day now,” the letter continued. “After that appeal, the Russian government will transfer Mr. Fogel from his current detention center to a penal colony, notorious for harsh labor requirements and treatment of prisoners.”
Fogel’s family, who attempted to keep the case and trial low profile in hopes of receiving a fair sentence from the court, is now concerned that he will not survive the penal colony.
“We strongly urge the State Department to shift its strategy given the realities of Marc Fogel’s situation and act immediately to designate him as ‘wrongfully detained,'” the letter concluded. “Such a designation will provide the warranted level of support to Marc Fogel’s family after a year of communication with Mr. Fogel only via mail and, most importantly, will require the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to secure Mr. Fogel’s freedom. We cannot allow Mr. Fogel to be used as a political pawn by Vladimir Putin.”
The letter was signed by Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
A State Department spokesperson told The Hill that while they do not comment on Congressional correspondence, the department “take[s] seriously our commitment to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation.”
“The Department reviews cases of U.S. nationals detained abroad to determine whether they are wrongful detentions. We review the totality of the circumstances and assess the facts of the case against numerous criteria,” the spokesperson added.