The family of a man being detained in Russia is pleading with the highest ranks of the United States government to include the beloved Pennsylvania schoolteacher in their deal with the Kremlin to have those in its custody safely returned to the U.S.
“A 14 year sentence in a Russian prison colony is, at best, a life sentence and, at worst, a death sentence”
Marc Fogel, 60, is serving what attorneys have called an “exorbitant” 14-year sentence for being caught in Russia with medical marijuana that he used to treat a severe back injury. When news broke that the U.S. government was working on a deal to bring home Americans detained in Russia, his family and representatives had hoped Fogel would be on that list – and were devastated to learn otherwise.
“[It] was heart-wrenching, hearing he wasn’t included,” Fogel’s sister, Anne Fogel-Burchenal, told Fox News Digital on Friday.
After staying quiet to avoid risking impeding Fogel’s case, his sisters and relatives are speaking out.
“Our strategy was to play it low-key and cool through his sentencing, because that was what we thought was the right thing to do. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe we should’ve been screaming and hollering all along,” Fogel-Burchenal said, when reached by phone.
Fearing the worst, they have since changed their plans for navigating the unimaginable.
“We are going to yell as loudly as we can and continue to until he gets home,” she went on. We aren’t going to let it rest.”
Fogel had worked as a teacher at school in Moscow for nearly ten years when he was stopped at an airport upon his return to Russia. He was in possession at the time of medical marijuana that his doctor recommended he take for “severe chronic pain” that was caused by years of spinal injuries and resulting surgeries.
According to The Washington Post, he had approximately half an ounce of medically-prescribed marijuana when he was detained in August 2021. In June of this year, he was sentenced to 14 years in a Russian prison after he was convicted of “large-scale drugs smuggling,” according to reports.
Then, this week, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken revealed that the U.S. had offered to make a deal with Russia in exchange for two Americans, WNBA athlete Brittney Griner – who was also detained at a Russian airport on drug-related charges – and Michigan security executive Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage charges that his family has completely rejected.
But Fogel was not included in the deal.
An attorney assisting Fogel’s family with his case told Fox News Digital in an email that Fogel “fully cooperated with the investigation and prosecution; submitted substantial proof of prior medical treatment, of debilitating health conditions, and of his doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana.”
His representatives shared dozens of references letters and evidence showing his lack of any criminal record.
“However, Marc’s exorbitant 14-year sentence, which is usually reserved to large-scale drug smugglers and murderers even in Russian courts, made it abundantly clear that Marc cannot obtain justice in Russia,” the attorney wrote.
The family has asked the U.S. State Department to classify Fogel as “wrongfully detained.” The designation, the attorney said, “which would commit additional US government resources to securing his release and move to the jurisdiction of the US government’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.”
“A request has been made for Marc’s Humanitarian Release due to his health conditions: given Marc’s age and health condition, a 14-year sentence in a Russian prison colony is, at best, a life sentence and, at worst, a death sentence,” the attorney continued. “We strongly believe that Marc should be included in any exchange deal the U.S. and Russia are negotiating.”
A State Department spokesperson said they were limited in what they could discuss because of privacy concerns, but said consular officers are working in many ways to help Fogel, whom they did not identify by name. The State Department is insisting that Russia continue to allow access to U.S. citizens detained there, and is urging the Russian government to ensure fair treatment and adequate medical care for detained Americans, the spokesperson said.
Ellen Keelan, Fogel’s niece, told Fox News Digital neither she nor her family has spoken directly to Fogel in “almost a year,” and is instead limited to pre-screened and roughly translated letters that, in the end, don’t “even sound like him.” And they don’t know what actually gets to him, and in what state their messages to him end up being, she said.
“My understanding is he is okay … I don’t know if that is the right word,” Keelan said. But “nobody has been granted a phone call. Nobody has heard from him or seen his face.”
She added: “It’s just been a black box in communication. Every time we think we are going to get an answer, we are sent down another path.”
In just weeks, he will have been detained in Russia for one year.
“A 14-year sentence being forced to do hard labor – it’s not like we’re going to see him when he is 75. He is simply not going to survive this. We are fighting for his life.”
She said the situation has gone “from critical to dire.”
“We are pleading with the Biden Administration to classify him as wrongfully detained,” she added. “Remember this is a real person – a husband and father and an amazing teacher – and we can’t let this be the end of his story.”
Fogel’s family has started a Change.org petition and is now trying to be as active as possible on social media. Keelan credited Griner’s case with “raising awareness” to Fogel’s story.
His sister, Lisa Hyland, said she has been encouraged when she heard that Griner said to “bring all the wrongfully detained home.”
“This is above the State Department now,” she said. “This is President Biden, Secretary Blinken, Jill Biden, even – she’s a teacher. They have to do what they can. Otherwise, we are never going to see him again.”