Shortly after the US announced a deal to trade Brittany Griner for a convicted arms dealer, another American detained in Russia on espionage charges said he was ‘disappointed’ that President Joe Biden hasn’t done more to secure his release.
Paul Whelan, a former US marine, has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018. ‘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,’ he told CNN.
‘I would say that if a message could go to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly,’ Whelan said. ‘My bags are packed. I’m ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me.’
Earlier this year, the Biden administration said it was working on a prisoner swap deal to trade convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for both Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner, but this exchange stalled for months.
On Thursday morning, the administration announced the deal would go through, but the Russians only agreed to hand over Griner.
President Joe Biden said they were disappointed and speaking with the Whelan family. ‘Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,’ he said. ‘And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.’
However, the imprisoned American said he wasn’t surprised at the negotiations outcome.
‘They’ve put me at a level higher than what they did with Trevor (Reed) and Brittney,’ he said, alluding to his conviction on espionage charges. ‘That raises a lot of concerns because none of it is true. And they’re trying to get out of United States, what the United States may not be able to provide, but this is basically political extortion.’
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the offer on the table was just for Griner. ‘This was not a choice of which American to bring home,’ Blinken said. ‘The choice was one or none.’
‘President Biden made the difficult decision to accept that option because it resulted in the safe return home of an American,’ another senior White House official said. ‘That is always our goal, of course: Get wrongfully detained Americans home safely, then keep working for the return of others.’
‘We do not begrudge Ms Griner her freedom,’ Whelan’s twin brother David said in a statement. He said his family has ‘steeled ourselves for this likelihood,’ but also mentioned that the US government ‘needs to be more assertive’ with Russia.
‘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. In Russia’s case, this may mean taking more law-breaking, Kremlin-connected Russians into custody. It’s not like there aren’t plenty around the world,’ David Whelan said.
Paul Whelan was detained at the Hotel Metropol in 2018. He was staying at the famous art deco landmark blocks away from the Kremlin to attend a friend’s wedding.
He was apprehended by Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, and accused of espionage. When his belongings were searched, Russian investigators claim they found a flash drive containing photos of classified military documents.
Whelan said he was set up a Russian friend, who gave him the flash drive and told him it contained photos from the wedding.
Whelan’s trial was held behind closed doors and drew harsh criticism from US authorities. In 2020, he was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Whelan is a citizen of the US, Canada, Ireland, and the UK. He served in the US Marine Corps Reserves in Operation Iraqi Freedom as an administrative clerk until 2008, when he was dishonorably discharged after being found guilty of larceny by a court-martial.
Whelan has a background in IT, and before his conviction worked as the security director for a Michigan-based auto parts supplier.
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