An American educator imprisoned in Russia said he feels “hurt” to be overlooked as the Biden administration works to bring Britney Griner home, arguing that educators “are at least as important” as basketball players.
Marc Hilliard Fogel, 61 — who was arrested last August at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for trying to enter the country with about 20 grams of medical marijuana — worries about his own fate after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed that the US made a “substantial proposal” to bring home Griner and ex-Marine, Paul Whelan.
“That hurt. Teachers are at least as important as bballers,” Fogel wrote in a letter sent to his home in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, of the news reports of the possible exchange for convicted “Merchant of Death” Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Fogel was sentenced by a Russian judge last month to 14 years in prison.
The outlook for any possible exchange to bring Fogel home looks bleak, his wife told the newspaper in her first public comments on the case.
“There’s a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that Marc will be left behind,” Jane Fogel said. “It’s terrifying. I would hope that President Biden, and especially first lady Jill Biden, who is an educator, realize the importance of including arc in addition to Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.”
A State Department official said the agency is aware of Fogel’s case, but declined to provide additional details while citing privacy concerns, the newspaper reported.
Fogel’s name did not appear on a list of “other” Americans the Biden administration said it was working to free from prisons in Russia and other countries after the president had a call with Griner’s wife.
“It seems like the government is working really hard for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” Jane Fogel told the newspaper last week. “We want them to work for us, too.”
Fogel’s niece, Sarah Grubbs, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the 14-year prison term equates to “almost a death sentence” for her uncle, who has battled chronic pain for years and endured multiple back and knee surgeries.
“He wasn’t smuggling marijuana with the intent to distribute it,” Grubbs told the newspaper. “He just wanted to control chronic pain so he can continue doing what he loves.”
Fogel was headed to the Anglo-American School in Moscow — where he taught high school history for nearly a decade – when he was arrested. He had plans to retire this year and return to Oakmont, the Post-Gazette reported.
“It is crushing that they wouldn’t try to bring them all home,” one of Fogel’s former students told the newspaper. “Now we are negotiating for hostages, so why selectively? What is it about adding Marc to that list that is prohibitive?”
Fogel is not listed as “wrongfully detained” — a designation that has been granted to Whelan and Griner, 31, who faces up to 10 years in prison after admitting she had 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage while entering Russia in February.
Griner testified Wednesday she was unaware of how the vape cartridges got into her bag and had a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis to alleviate pain. It’s unclear how long the two-time gold medalist’s trial will last, but a court has authorized her detention until Dec. 20.
Whelan, an ex-Marine, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. Both he and his family have maintained his innocence as Washington has denounced the charges as false.
Asked about Fogel’s case Friday and why Washington hasn’t publicly pushed for his release like Griner and Whelan, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre cited “privacy issues” while saying she could not divulge more.
“But again, I just reiterate what we have said with wrongfully detained and US nationals that have been — that have been held hostage, we are going to do everything that we can to be able to get them home,” Jean-Pierre told reporters.
With Post wires