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Russia rejected "significant proposal" for Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan's release, U.S. says

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Washington — The U.S. recently made a "new and significant" proposal to Russia for the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and businessman Paul Whelan, but Moscow declined the offer, the State Department said Tuesday. 

"In recent weeks, we made a new and significant proposal to secure Paul and Evan's release," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters at a briefing. "That proposal was rejected by Russia." 

"It was to bring both of them home," he said. Miller said the U.S. has made "a number of proposals," but declined to give details about the offers. Both men are American citizens.

"We shouldn't have to make these proposals," he said. "They shouldn't have been arrested in the first place." 

The State Department considers both Gershkovich and Whelan to be wrongfully detained

Gershkovich was arrested in March on unsubstantiated espionage charges while he was on a reporting trip. He is awaiting trial. 

Whelan, who was arrested on espionage charges in 2018 while attending a friend's wedding in Russia, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison. He and his family have vehemently denied the allegations. 

Evan Gershkovich, left, and Paul Whelan are currently detained in Russia on espionage charges that the U.S. says are unfounded.
Evan Gershkovich, left, and Paul Whelan are currently detained in Russia on espionage charges that the U.S. says are unfounded. The Wall Street Journal and Sofia Sandurskaya / AP

"We have pressed the importance of this case through a number of channels with the Russian government," Miller said. "We will continue to do so and we hope that we will be able to secure their release." 

Earlier Tuesday, Gershkovich's parents said the Biden administration hasn't done enough to bring their son home. 

"The efforts to do whatever it takes hasn't been done," his mother Ella Milman told Fox News, saying she feels that they have been kept in the dark about the efforts to secure his release. "We want the U.S. government to do whatever it takes to bring Evan home." 

Mikhail Gershkovich, his father, said President Biden's promise to bring their son home gave them "a lot of solace and hope and strength," but "it's getting very, very hard to hold onto that." 

"We don't feel they're focused enough," he said. 

Miller said "not a week goes by without intense activity to bring Paul and Evan home" and "there is no higher priority" for Mr. Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

Whelan's family has previously expressed similar disappointment about the failure to secure his release, especially after two other American detainees — Marine veteran Trevor Reed and WNBA star Brittney Griner — were released in prisoner swaps between Russia and the U.S. after his arrest. 

His sister, Elizabeth Whelan, told CBS News in September that "whatever" the Russians are asking for "had better be possible." 

The Whelan family was told that a deal had been rejected before the State Department made it public, Whelan's brother David told CBS News on Wednesday. 

"We're obviously disappointed that the offered concession was not accepted by the Kremlin and that Paul is not coming home," he said in an email. "It is perhaps a saving grace that the Kremlin acted, though, as the U.S. government waited a long time on the last proposal before moving on in light of the Kremlin's non-response. Hopefully this means that the U.S. government will move more quickly to identify a new concession and, if necessary, acquire it, so that they do not wait another year to make an offer to the Kremlin." 

David said his brother "is not doing well" since he was attacked by a fellow prisoner last week. He said other prisoners with recording devices have tried to get his brother "to say incriminating or otherwise troublesome things" and he is worried about being assaulted again. 

"The prison has became drastically more hostile since the attack," David said, adding that his brother is aware that another proposal has failed to secure his freedom. 

"I think it's fair to say he doesn't feel like a priority," he said. 

Camilla Schick contributed reporting.

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