The former US marine is serving a 16-year sentence for alleged espionage, though his family maintains his innocence.
The administration of United States President Joe Biden is marking the four-year anniversary of American businessman Paul Whelan‘s detention in Russia, an imprisonment that remains a major irritant in relations between Washington and Moscow.
Whelan is currently serving a 16-year sentence in a prison colony in Russia’s Mordovia region. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Wednesday that securing Whelan’s release remains a top administration priority.
US officials had hoped to include Whelan in a prisoner swap earlier this month, in which they traded detained basketball star Brittney Griner for a convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout. The administration considers Whelan, like Griner, to have been wrongfully detained.
Today marks a terrible milestone for Paul Whelan: Four years wrongfully detained in Russia, following a secret trial with secret evidence. His detention remains unacceptable, and we continue to press for his immediate release at every opportunity.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) December 28, 2022
Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, is jailed in Russia on espionage charges that his family and the US government have said are baseless. On Wednesday, Blinken said Whelan and his family are “suffering through an unfathomable ordeal”, and he again condemned the American’s conviction, which was based on secret evidence.
“His detention remains unacceptable, and we continue to press for his immediate release at every opportunity,” Blinken said. “Our efforts to secure Paul’s release will not cease until he is back home with his family where he belongs.”
US officials said Russia had refused to consider including Whelan in the Griner-Bout prisoner swap deal, calling it a “one or none” decision. They applauded the Whelan family for supporting the exchange.
“Paul and the Whelan family recently showed the entire country the meaning of generosity of spirit in celebrating a fellow American’s return while Russia continues its deplorable treatment of Paul as a bargaining chip,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.
The Whelan family has nevertheless expressed fears that Whelan would not be released for years. His brother, David Whelan, said when the swap was announced, “I think we all realise that the math is not going to work out for Paul to come home anytime soon, unless the US government is able to find concessions.”
Paul Whelan, 52, was sentenced in 2020.
In a statement on Wednesday, David Whelan said, “Today is the 1,461st day that Paul has been held hostage by the Russian Federation. Russian authorities entrapped him four years ago today. How do you mark such an awful milestone when there is no resolution in sight?”
The anniversary, he said, “is both awful and mundane, just another day that Paul has to suffer in a Russian labor colony for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”