WASHINGTON — The White House insisted Wednesday the US has not given up the fight to bring former Marine Paul Whelan home from Russian custody as the Biden administration marked the fourth anniversary of his detention on trumped-up spying charges.
“Today marks four years of wrongful detention in Russia for American Paul Whelan and, as the President and I have told the Whelan family, we will not stop, we will not relent, we will not cease until all Americans can celebrate Paul’s return,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
Whelan, 52, was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor in 2020 after a Russian court found him guilty of espionage — a claim both Whelan and the US government continue to deny. Whelan had traveled to Russia for a wedding when he was “wrongfully detained,” according to the White House.
Earlier this month, the US secured WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release in a prisoner exchange for notorious international arms dealer Viktor Bout. Griner’s release came almost 10 months after she was arrested on drug charges at a Moscow airport.
The US had attempted to bring Whelan home with Griner, but the White House said Russia insisted on a one-for-one swap, giving Washington “a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none,” as one official put it.
After the deal was announced, Whelan’s family issued a statement that supported Griner’s release, while noting the decision was a “public disappointment for us and a catastrophe for Paul.”
Sullivan on Wednesday accused Russia of using Whelan as a pawn to secure concessions — such as the release of other Russian prisoners. The White House said last week that “there are active conversations” with the Kremlin about securing the Michigan corporate security executive’s freedom.
“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,” Sullivan said.
Whelan’s brother David said in a statement that the anniversary brought heartbreak and concern for the family, the Washington Examiner reported Wednesday.
“Milestones are always hard,” David Whelan said. “Four birthdays, four Christmases, and now the 4th anniversary of Paul’s wrongful detention. I think we share the same concern as every family in this situation, which is that, with each passing year, it will become harder to bring Paul home.”