Former US Marine Paul Whelan has spoken out from Russian prison, saying he is ‘disappointed’ the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release following a prisoner swap to free WNBA star Brittney Griner.
Whelan was not part of Thursday’s prisoner swap, which saw Griner released from Russian prison in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the ‘Merchant of Death.’
‘I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming up,’ Whelan told CNN in a phone call from the remote Russian penal colony where he imprisoned on espionage charges.
‘I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.’
‘My bags are packed. I’m ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me,’ added Whelan. ‘It’s quite obvious that I’m being held hostage.’
Former US Marine Paul Whelan has spoken out from Russian prison, saying he is ‘disappointed’ the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release
Griner (left) was released from Russian prison on Thursday in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (right), known as the ‘Merchant of Death.’
David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement that the family was ‘glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,’ but expressed disappointment that Paul remained imprisoned four years after his arrest on espionage charges, which he denies.
‘Despite the possibility that there might be an exchange without Paul, our family is still devastated,’ said David.
‘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,’ he added.
‘His hopes had soared with the knowledge that the US 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 US.’
Paul Whelan was arrested on spying charges during what he says was a tourist trip to Moscow in December 2018. In 2020 he was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in a maximum security jail. He denied all the charges, and his family and the US government have said they are baseless.
Griner was serving a nine year prison sentence after pleading guilty to bringing cannabis products through Russian customs in February.
‘I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,’ David said. ‘There is no greater success that for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.’
But David added in his statement that: ‘as the use of wrongful detentions and hostage diplomacy continues around the globe, it’s clear the US government needs to be more assertive.’
‘If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the US needs a swifter, more direct response, and to be prepared in advance,’ he added.
David said that unlike in April, when he was left out of an earlier prison swap, ‘US government officials let us know in advance that Paul would be left behind’.
‘That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul,’ he added.
Former U.S. marine officer Paul Whelan attends a court hearing via a video link in Moscow, Russia on November 19, 2019
He noted that this year would mark the fourth Christmas that Paul’s parents, age 83 and 85, had spent with their son in Russian prison.
‘The likelihood that our parents will see their son again diminishes each day his wrongful detention continues,’ he wrote.
‘Increasingly, I worry that Paul himself won’t survive 12 more years in a Russian labor colony. He has tried to stay healthy but one wonders how long that determination to endure can continue,’ added David.
The family has an ongoing GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Paul’s legal expenses and support him in Russian prison, where inmates are charged for items such as toilet paper and toothpaste.
President Joe Biden said on Thursday that Russia is treating Whelan’s case differently from Griner’s, making it difficult to secure his release.
‘Sadly and for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently from Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,’ he said.
Biden celebrates with Griner’s wife Cherelle in the Oval Office after securing the WNBA star’s release from a Russian penal colony
PICTURED (from left to right): Biden, Griner’s wife Cherelle, Harris, and Blinken
‘We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,’ Biden said. ‘We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.’
A senior US defense official cited by NBC News similarly said that the US tried to secure Whelan’s freedom, but that Russia refused to release him without getting a Russian spy in return.
‘They are treating him differently. They say he is an espionage case. They said the choice was either one [Griner] or none,’ the person said.
Whelan’s attorney said that dialog on a possible prisoner swap was continuing, the state-run Interfax news agency reported.
The 32-year-old Griner was facing nine years in a Russian penal colony, where she was expected to toil in sweatshop conditions while sewing for 12 hours or more per day.
Addressing the nation from the White House on Thursday morning, the president said Griner was ‘in good spirits’ while returning home after undergoing ‘intolerable’ circumstances in Russian custody.
President Joe Biden addressed the nation from the White House on Thursday morning to discuss Brittney Griner’s release as well as the conditions of Americans still detained abroad.
‘Britney is is an incomparable athlete, a two time Olympic gold medalist for Team USA. She endured mistreatment at a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity. She represents the best America – the best about America,’ Biden said.
Biden spoke with Griner on the phone Thursday, along with her wife Cherelle, who was in the Oval Office for the occasion.
Biden’s authorization to release a hardened Russian arms dealer underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
Bout, 55, was one of the world’s most wanted men before his 2008 arrest, and was variously dubbed ‘the merchant of death’ and ‘the sanctions buster’ for his ability to get around arms embargoes.
For almost two decades, Bout became the world’s most notorious arms dealer, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.
For experts on the Russian security services, Moscow’s lasting interest in Bout hints strongly at Russian intelligence ties.