Family seeks release of Oakmont teacher being held in Russian prison – TribLIVE

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Marc Fogel has lived in six countries and taught overseas for 35 years, including stints in Mexico, Malaysia, Colombia, Oman and Venezuela.
Last summer, Fogel and his wife, Jane, were about to start their 10th and final year teaching at the Anglo American School in Moscow.
But when they arrived at Sheremetyevo International Airport on August 14, Fogel was in possession of about 17 grams of medical marijuana prescribed to treat chronic pain from a debilitating spinal condition he’d had for more than three decades.
The Russian government did not accept Fogel’s medical explanation. Instead, they charged Fogel, of Oakmont, with drug smuggling and drug possession.
Fogel, who turns 61 on Thursday, was placed in pre-trial detention. Following several hearings in Khimkinsky Moscow Region Court between April and June, Fogel pleaded guilty to both counts against him.
Fully cooperating with the investigation and having had no criminal intent, Fogel thought he would be treated fairly, said Pittsburgh attorney Sasha Phillips, who is assisting the family in the case.
In court, Fogel submitted substantial proof of prior medical treatment — including multiple surgeries and his debilitating health conditions. He also presented evidence of a lack of criminal record and dozens of reference letters from former students, colleagues and family members.
But none of that mattered.
Fogel was sentenced to 14 years incarceration in a maximum security penal colony — a sentence in Russia typically reserved for high-volume drug dealers and killers, Phillips said.
“It is clear that Marc is the victim of a politically motivated prosecution designed to stimulate anti-American xenophobia among the Russian population, which has increased significantly since Russia expanded its brutal war in Ukraine in late February,” she said.
“It’s not hyperbole to say it is a death sentence for him,” said Fogel’s sister, Lisa Hyland, of O’Hara. “There’s no way my brother is going to survive there for 14 years.”
International teaching drove him
Fogel grew up in Butler County and talked about traveling from a young age.
He managed to secure a student teaching gig in London, his sister said, before graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a degree in social studies education in 1984, according to school records.
Fogel has taught at Winchester-Thurston in Pittsburgh and in Washington, D.C.
But it was teaching internationally that drove him.
“He was adventurous that way, curious,” Hyland said. “He had an interest in connecting with people of all different cultures.”
Kamakshi Balasubramanian, 73, lives in Mysore, India, and taught with Fogel at ABA, an IB World School, in Muscat, Oman, in the early 2000s.
Balasubramanian taught English while Fogel, who she described as charismatic, taught history.
“He’s well-known among educators internationally,” she said. “He has no idea how absolutely charming he is.”
Fogel created the IB World School’s model United Nations program to teach about human rights and civil liberties, and founded a junior trip to Vietnam to see the effects of the war there.
Balasubramanian said that Fogel had a genuine interest in his students and a level of energy that made them want to learn.
“He took a personal interest in the kids he taught,” she said.
Fatima Zaidi, 33, had Fogel for all four years at ABA and traveled with the annual class trip to Vietnam with him.
“He was one of those teachers who instilled the love of knowledge and learning,” she said.
Zaidi, who lives in Canada and now owns a podcast technology company, said she was not the best student and didn’t excel with traditional teaching.
“He really instilled that personal connection with every student and helped them find what made them special,” Zaidi said.
She described Fogel as kind-spirited, joyful and funny. When she went to college, she minored in history because of him.
“There’s not a lot of teachers like Marc,” Zaidi said.
That’s why, when his former colleagues and students heard about the charges against him, they galvanized to do what they can to raise awareness and fight his detention.
“He’s not a basketball player. He’s not an international spy,” Balasubramanian said. “He’s a high school teacher.”
High stakes
When Fogel was first arrested nearly a year ago, the U.S. State Department urged his family to keep a low media profile, telling them it would be more productive to work on his release if his story wasn’t receiving national and international attention.
But after he received a sentence so out of proportion for what he was accused of — Phillips said in 2019 a Dutch citizen was sentenced in Russia to 15 years in prison for selling over 200 pounds of cocaine — that is no longer the case.
“Marc’s exorbitant 14-year sentence made it abundantly clear that he cannot obtain justice in Russia, and the family needs to turn elsewhere,” Phillips said.
They have now begun a letter-writing campaign to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as to their state representatives.
The handling of Fogel’s case has been different than that of American basketball star Brittney Griner, who was also arrested in Moscow for having marijuana. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and center for the Phoenix Mercury, was charged in February with possessing cannabis oil when she arrived at Sheremetyevo airport to play for a Russian team.
She has been in custody since then, and the American government has said she is being wrongfully detained.
Fogel’s family is seeking the same declaration for him based on the lengthy sentence he received. Once they have that, additional U.S. government resources will be committed to securing his release and jurisdiction will move to the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, Ambassador Roger Carstens, Phillips said.
Following a hearing in a Russian court earlier this month, Griner’s detention was extended for another six months to Dec. 20.
Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, who was in court that day, told reporters that the American government “is working hard to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals home safely.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that they could not address Fogel’s specific situation because of privacy concerns. The spokesperson would not draw any comparisons between Fogel’s case and Griner’s.
“We are not going to make comparisons among cases, especially those at different stages of the Russian legal process,” the State Department said. “We take seriously our commitment to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation.”
The spokesperson said the American government continues to press for fair and transparent treatment for all U.S. citizens detained in Russia.
“We continue to urge the Russian government to allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, in line with its legal obligations.”
On Wednesday, CNN reported that the Biden administration has proposed a prisoner swap with Russia. In exchange for the release of Griner and former corporate security executive Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence for espionage, the United States will return convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, the news network reported.
The CNN story did not reference Fogel.
“While we don’t have any specifics about the discussion, we strongly believe that Marc should be included, though initial reporting in the media has not mentioned him as part of the deal,” Phillips said.
No one from Fogel’s family has been able to visit or speak to him since his arrest, and staff from the embassy have only visited him twice, Hyland said. Jane Fogel left Russia at the end of October and has not returned.
“Going back just became untenable for her,” Hyland said.
Fogel loved Moscow, she continued, which is among the reasons why what has happened to her brother is especially painful.
“He was always taking the side of the underdog — or the interpretation that was most beneficial to humanity,” she said.
Hyland described Fogel as “an optimist to a fault.
“He always thought the best would happen, and it usually did,” she said. “He was infectious in his pleasantness.”
But the family is struggling now, trying to maintain the same level of optimism.
They have not received any pictures of him, and Fogel has not been allowed to call.
“These things you think are guaranteed by the Geneva Accords — it goes out the window,” Hyland said. “We’re dealing with people who just don’t care about the rules at all.”
Although they are able to exchange letters, they must be written in Russian.
The family uses Google translator to send Fogel letters, but he must rely on the random cellmate who speaks both English and Russian. And the letters Fogel sends, his sister said, are written in script and much harder to translate.
“Our communication with him is very sporadic, uncertain,” Hyland said. “We feel like we never really know what’s happening with him. It has been an incredibly challenging year — filled with so many emotions and feelings and frustrations.”
When Fogel went to trial, the family was hopeful that the situation would end fairly.
That’s no longer the case.
“There’s no question in my mind they are targeting him because he’s an American,” Hyland said. “He’s just become a pawn in a much bigger game.”
Former Russian Ambassador Michael McFaul, who declined an interview because of a pending book deadline, has said repeatedly in other media reports that a prisoner exchange should include Griner, Whelan and Fogel.
McFaul sent an email to Fogel’s family soon after his imprisonment, Hyland said. In the message, the ambassador noted that Fogel had taught McFaul’s son at the Anglo American School. He said that Fogel was the best teacher his son ever had and that he had a positive impact on the teen at a time when he needed it, Hyland said.
Fogel’s family has met multiple times with officials from the state department.
“They talk to you compassionately, but I don’t know what they’re doing,” Hyland said. “We believe they’ll do the right thing, and they’re just not talking about it because it makes their jobs harder.”
But, she continued, the family is constantly second-guessing themselves — whether they’re being too patient, if they’re asking the right questions and contacting the right people.
“You have so little information, and the stakes are just so unbelievably high,” Hyland said.
Zaidi and Balasubramanian have been working to rally Fogel’s former students to write to the government and speak to the media about him.
“It’s about tyranny — about punishing people just because they’re American,” said Balasubramanian, who learned about Fogel’s arrest in January. “I could not believe my ears what was happening.”
She sent Blinken a letter on Tuesday, urging the government to work for Fogel’s release so that he can continue teaching.
“I say to you, Secretary Blinken, bring Marc home to the USA. Bring Marc out of Putin’s tyranny. Bring Marc back to freedom, because he will sow the seeds of humanity in hundreds of young people,” Balasubramanian wrote. “He will continue to touch the hearts of people who might have the good fortune to be his students, colleagues, his family, and a fellow-community builder in the great USA.”
Paula Reed Ward is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paula by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .
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