The Biden administration on Wednesday renewed its commitment to secure the release of American Paul Whelan on the fourth anniversary of his wrongful detention in Russia, as Whelan’s family expressed hope that he would not mark yet another milestone in Russian prison.
“Today marks four years that Paul Whelan has spent wrongfully detained, away from his family, suffering through an unfathomable ordeal,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “His detention remains unacceptable, and we continue to press for his immediate release at every opportunity.”
President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan echoed that message, saying, “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.”
Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 on espionage charges he has vehemently denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020.
US officials were unable to secure his release in prisoner swaps this past year that secured the release of two other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia: Trevor Reed in April and Brittney Griner in mid-December. Multiple US officials said following Griner’s release that the Russians refused to negotiate a deal for Whelan, and CNN reported that Moscow repeatedly demanded a convicted murderer who is in German custody in exchange for the ex-Marine.
Whelan, who called CNN exclusively from his remote penal colony in the hours following Griner’s release, said he hoped Biden and his administration “would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point.”
“I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he said. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
In a message Wednesday, Whelan’s brother David wrote: “How do you mark such an awful milestone when there is no resolution in sight?”
“It 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. Another day that our parents have to suffer without being able to see or be with their son,” David Whelan said.
“It is both a culmination of lost life – four years of missed birthdays, Christmases, and other experiences – and also not an end point,” he continued. “It’s merely a marker of their suffering, not an indicator that the suffering will come to an end before another milestone, another year passes.”
Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, told CNN that it’s “a sign of weakness that the Russian authorities continue this practice of hostage-diplomacy by refusing to release my brother, who they know full well was arrested and sentenced on charges they themselves concocted.”
David Whelan said his family continues “to be grateful for the efforts of the US government to persuade the Kremlin to release Paul.”
“Hopefully these efforts will be successful. Hopefully Paul will be able to stop by our parent’s home and visit them, free at last, before another milestone passes. On milestones, sometimes all you have is hope,” he wrote.