American teacher sentenced to 14 years hard labor for traveling to Russia with cannabis
(CNN) -- The family of an American sentenced to 14 years at a hard labor camp in Russia fears that he has been given what amounts to a "a death sentence" and is calling on the Biden administration to designate him as wrongfully detained, which would trigger formal diplomatic efforts to secure his release.
American citizen Marc Fogel worked for nearly a decade as a history teacher at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, where children of US diplomats were among his students.
"He is a very, very much beloved teacher, an award-winning teacher," one of his sisters, Anne Fogel, told CNN. "He is an incredibly enthusiastic person, has an amazing zest for life. And that has made him an outstanding teacher, and his students have loved him."
He was arrested 11 months ago at an airport in the Russian capital, where he was returning for the school year, after traveling into the country with cannabis.
His family and lawyer said he was carrying it for medical purposes that had been recommended by a doctor to treat "severe spinal pain."
Last month, he was found guilty in a court just outside of Moscow -- the same where the trial of detained WNBA player Brittney Griner is taking place -- of committing "large-scale drugs smuggling" and given the 14-year sentence.
The situation around Fogel's case has other similarities to Griner's. Both Americans were arrested at a Russian airport for having cannabis, which they testified was for personal ailments, although Fogel was found to have been carrying much more of the substance than Griner.
However, unlike Griner, Fogel has not been classified as wrongfully detained -- a designation which would prompt the US government to actively work on negotiations to secure his release as part of the efforts by the State Department's Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
"The Griner case makes the case for his classification as wrongfully detained even stronger. But even leaving that aside he should still be designated as wrongfully detained. It cannot be explained unless there is a political motive, because legally it does not add up," Thomas Firestone, a member of Fogel's US legal team, said.
The length of Fogel's sentence floored his family, who have filed an appeal, and Firestone, who told CNN that "14 years for that kind of offense is wildly disproportionate."
"It is also disproportionate when you consider other sentences in the Russian system. There are murderers in Russia who are sentenced to only 10 years in prison," said Firestone, a former Department of Justice official who has served as the Resident Legal Advisor and Acting Chief of the Law Enforcement Section at the US Embassy in Moscow.
Anne Fogel told CNN they "have filed an appeal. And we're hoping that the Russian judicial system will recognize the humanity of this, that a 61-year old man, elderly at this point, is not capable of doing this kind of time. This is a death sentence for him."
"Every day is full of frustrations, frustration probably doesn't even go far enough," Elise Hyland, another sister of Fogel, said, telling CNN that throughout the trial the family tried to "play by the rules" -- keeping a low profile, working within the Russian legal system, providing all the supporting documentation in support of his case -- in the hopes of a lenient sentence, but they did not get it.
"This sentence that my brother has been given is outrageous. We know that the sentence exceeds what is reasonable and it is because of his status as an American citizen," she said.
A foreign government detaining an individual "solely or substantially because he or she is a United States national" is one of the criteria under the Robert Levinson Act for the US government to determine whether someone is wrongfully detained.
Firestone said that "it is hard to say if Griner's fame played into the State Department quickly designating her as wrongfully detained, because it is hard to say what information they have about her detention and the background of that case."
"These cases are always a multifactor analysis and are often based on confidential information and intelligence," he told CNN.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that "each case is unique, and in determining whether a detention is wrongful, in determining if a detention is wrongful, we look at the totality of the circumstances."
"We never close the book when it comes to any particular case. We are constantly looking at the facts. We are constantly looking at the circumstances," he said at a State Department briefing Tuesday. "As we learn more about any given case, as we learn more about the circumstances of detention, the charges, fair trial guarantees, due process or lack thereof, we are always weighing those developments against the criteria to determine whether an American is wrongfully held or not."
Fogel's family said they would like to see him designated as wrongfully detained, but they are hopeful that the US government will do everything it can to bring him home.
But time is of the essence, his family said.
Anne Fogel told CNN the family has only been able to receive letters from Marc, and they haven't spoken to him in nearly a year.
"It's incredibly worrisome because we can't really have, there is no honest conversation. Everything goes through the censors. It's harrowing," she said.
"I feel like we're in a black box. And we're trying to feel out our way," she said. "This has been absolutely one of the most challenging periods of time for my family."
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