As Americans celebrate a deal between Russia and the U.S. which secured athlete Brittney Griner’s release, the family of another prisoner in Russia remains concerned.
Paul Whelan, a 52-year-old former resident of Michigan, was first detained in December 2018 by Russian authorities and imprisoned on espionage charges. He remains in prison despite American efforts to free him.
In February, Russia detained WNBA star Griner on drug possession charges; airport authorities accused her of carrying hashish oil in her luggage and she was later sentenced to nine years in prison. Griner’s high-profile imprisonment also drew attention to Whelan’s case by generating public pressure for the release of detained citizens in Russia.
On Thursday morning, President Biden announced in remarks at the White House that Griner would be released back to the U.S. Griner’s release was part of a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer and former Soviet military officer Viktor Bout, who was imprisoned in the U.S. on charges of conspiring to kill Americans.
Biden expressed disappointment that Whelan would remain behind bars, but maintained that the U.S. would separately continue with efforts to secure his release, too. In recent weeks, the U.S. had publicly raised concerns about Whelan when his family shared that they could not reach him.
Here’s what to know about Paul Whelan and his continued imprisonment.
Who is Paul Whelan?
Whelan, a US Marine veteran, former sheriff’s deputy and corporate security expert, holds American, Irish, British, and Canadian citizenship.
Between 1990 and 2008, Whelan served several tours in Iraq as an active-duty reservist.
In 2020, Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison by Russian authorities on espionage charges. Whelan previously said he was framed and that a person he thought was his friend unknowingly planted a USB drive with classified information in his pocket, according to the BBC.
Whelan and the American government have denied the charges against him. “Russia says it caught James Bond on a spy mission,” Whelan said before his sentencing, the BBC reported. “In reality, they abducted Mr. Bean on holiday.”
David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother, told CNN that his brother had been in Russia for a wedding and had made several trips to Russia in the past.
What has Whelan’s imprisonment been like?
Whelan previously told CNN in 2021 that during his prison sentence he was working in a “sweatshop.”
He also spent time in solitary confinement for about a month, according to CNN.
Did Biden provide any updates on Whelan?
Biden said in televised remarks from the White House on Thursday that the swap was “not a choice of which American to bring home.”
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” he said. “While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
How did Paul Whelan’s family react?
Despite the President’s reassurances that the U.S. would continue to fight for Whelan’s freedom, his family expressed feeling “devastated” over his continued imprisonment.
“Any time an American comes home, it’s wonderful news … We do worry about what’s in Paul’s future. I think it’s become clear that the U.S. doesn’t have any concessions that Russia wants for Paul,” David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother said on CNN.
In a statement emailed to the media, David Whelan spoke about how his brother had started feeling hopeful about his release.
“I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly four years of this injustice. His hopes had soared with the knowledge that the U.S. government was taking concrete steps for once towards his release. He’d been worrying about where he’d live when he got back to the U.S.”