Billings Gazette: Montana delegation urges release of Russian prisoner

by Tom Lutey

It will be two years this August since American Marc Fogel was arrested in a Russian airport. His family pleaded with members of Congress this week to get the 62-year-old home.

They met with Montana’s delegation. Marc’s sister, Anne, lives in Missoula, which was reason enough for Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, as well as Rep. Ryan Zinke to write the Biden Administration urging that Fogel be recognized by the U.S. State Department as wrongfully detained and released.

Daines, a Republican, spoke on the Senate floor last week about the importance of Fogel being recognized by U.S. officials as being wrongfully detained. He likened Fogel’s detention in August 2021 to the February 2022 detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner. Both were using the prescription cannabis products for medical needs. Griner had cannabis oil in her luggage, Fogel had medical marijuana.

 “One of the key differences between Brittney Griner and Mark Fogle’s cases is that less than three months after Griner’s arrest, the State Department classified her as wrongfully detained. Fogle deserves the same justice. And we should be using every tool at our disposal to bring him home,” Daines said. “I’ve had the privilege of getting to know some of Mark’s family, some of whom are Montanans. They have been fierce advocates here stateside. But they fear they will never see their brother’s face again, or hear their father’s voice, and we can’t let that happen.”

Daines said he’s also worked with Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, on the wrongfully detained designation for Fogel. McFaul and Daines were high school debate partners in Bozeman. McFaul’s son was a student of Fogel’s in Moscow when McFaul was ambassador.

This is the second year that Daines and Tester have asked the State Department to designate Fogel wrongfully detained.

 “Marc Fogel has been unjustly imprisoned in Russia for too long, and I continue to call on the Administration to secure his return,” Tester said in press release this week. “I recently met with Marc’s family, and I pledged to keep pushing to bring him home. I won’t rest until this innocent American is reunited with his loved ones.”

The State Department has 11 criteria it considers before granting wrongful detention status for an American held by a foreign country. Fogel meets six of the 11, according to a resolution introduced last Wednesday by the 13 members of the U.S. House, including Montana’s Western District Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican. This the first time a Montana member of the U.S. House has put forth a resolution advocating for Fogel’s release.

A native of the Pennsylvania, Fogel made a career out of teaching history at schools attended by U.S. diplomats. He taught in Colombia, Venezuela, Oman, Malaysia and his last stop, Russia, where Fogel worked at the Anglo-American School of Moscow.

Fogel had returned to Russia for a final year of teaching before a planned retirement, Daines said. The medical marijuana had been prescribed as an alternative to opioids for pain following multiple back surgeries.

Five months after Fogel’s arrest, and a month before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, The Moscow Times reported the teacher was being held for “large scale” drug smuggling, meaning a contact lens case containing marijuana and an e-cigarette containing cannabis oil. The United States at the time was warning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Times noted that Fogel had previously benefitted from diplomatic immunity, but the privilege ended the May before Fogel’s arrest.

This spring, in an April background press conference, senior Biden administration officials said the wrongfully detained designation “was not the gatekeeper to whether a family whose loved one is held abroad gets senior attention.”

At the background briefing, a senior Biden official said the administration had been in contact with the Embassy Moscow for Fogel’s release on humanitarian grounds.

However, the question that went unanswered was why Fogel hadn’t received the designation.

Fogel turned 62 Thursday. His sentence is 14 years detention in a labor camp.