Mar 4, 2022 - World

Scoop: State Department pushes Ukraine to free U.S. detainees in Kyiv

Ukrainian flag

Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

The State Department is asking the Ukrainian government to release Americans held in pre-trial detention in Kyiv, fearing for their safety as Russian forces continue their assault on the capital, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: With conditions growing more desperate by the day, any way out for these Americans is highly uncertain. Two former Marines the U.S. has said are wrongfully detained in Russia may also face additional danger as tensions with Moscow spiral.

  • The U.S. no longer has a diplomatic presence in Kyiv to check on detainees and ensure their safety, and it's unclear how long prison guards will continue to report to work.
  • The State Department made the request in a diplomatic note to the Ukrainian government on Wednesday.

Zoom in: About five Americans are believed to be in pre-trial detention in Ukraine, meaning they have been charged but not convicted of a crime, according to a former U.S. official who advises the families of wrongful detainees.

  • One is Kurt Groszhans, a farmer from North Dakota accused of plotting to assassinate Ukraine's minister of agriculture, Roman Leshchenko, who was his former business partner.
  • Groszhans' family claims he was arrested on trumped-up charges after publicly accusing Leshchenko of corruption. They say he now risks being left behind without food or heat as Russia threatens to seize Kyiv.
  • The family has urged the State Department to secure Groszhans' release since early January, when alarms were sounding over Russia's continued military buildup on Ukraine's borders.

What they're saying: "Our concern is that the State Department is not advocating for his release because it would be inferring that Ukraine is engaged in corrupt activities right at a time when State is focused on being as supportive as possible of Ukraine against the Russians," Groszhans' sister, Kristi Magnusson, told Axios in a statement.

  • "We support the Ukrainian people against Russia as well, but our brother is a sitting duck in that prison and we need him to be released so at least he can try to survive on his own," she added.
  • Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told Axios they have been in contact with both the State Department and Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S. this week to push for Groszhans' release on humanitarian grounds.

The big picture: The situation is also growing dire for Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, former U.S. Marines imprisoned in Russia who — unlike Groszhans — are considered by the U.S. to be "unlawfully detained.”

  • Reed, who was arrested in 2018 for allegedly assaulting a police officer while drunk, has been experiencing severe health problems in the penal colony where he is serving out a nine-year sentence, according to his family.
  • "With each passing day, Trevor’s situation becomes increasingly urgent. The Reeds continue to seek an urgent meeting with the president as Trevor’s health continues to decline," a spokesman for Reed's family told Axios.
  • The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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