As the Biden administration celebrates the homecoming of one prominent American detained in Russia — basketball star Brittney Griner — it's pledging to continue working to secure the release of another who's been there even longer.
Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan was detained in Moscow in 2018 on espionage charges, found guilty in a closed trial and is now nearly three years into a 16-year prison sentence. He denies the accusations, and U.S. officials have denounced his trial as unfair.
At the end of November, 52-year-old Whelan was briefly transferred from a penal colony to a prison hospital. He spoke to his family last Friday, after a week of silence that had prompted concern in the White House over his whereabouts and condition.
"He is probably as well as you could be in a Russian labor camp," his twin brother David told NPR in April. "They don't provide nutritional meals, and they don't really take too much care of the prisoners. There's a lot of corruption and other abuse. So I think he does his best to stay out of people's way."
Speaking to CNN from a penal colony in remote Russia on Thursday, Whelan expressed surprise that he wasn't included in the prisoner swap and frustration that the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release.
"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. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred," he said. "I don't understand why I'm still sitting here."
President Biden said Thursday that "sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's." Whelan told CNN that he had been told that because Russia accused him of being a spy, it had put him "at a level higher" than Griner and Trevor Reed, who was released in April.
Senior administration officials told reporters on a conference call Thursday that Griner's release was secured after months of talks and a number of proposals that had also aimed to free Whelan — which Russia had refused.
"This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home," one official said on the call. "It was a choice between bringing home one particular American – Brittney Griner – or bringing home none."
Biden stressed that efforts to secure Whelan's release are ongoing, and said his administration is in close touch with Whelan's family (the U.S. official said Biden intends to speak with them too).
"My thoughts and prayers are with them today, they have to have such mixed emotions today," Biden said. "And we'll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul's release, I guarantee that ... I urge Russia to do the same, to ensure Paul's health and humane treatment are maintained until we are able to bring him home."
Griner's release is bittersweet for Whelan's family
Thursday's news is both a source of celebration and sadness for Whelan's family.
They said in a statement that U.S. officials had let them know a day in advance that Whelan would be "left behind" in the prisoner swap, adding that was not the case in April, when 30-year-old former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed was released in exchange for jailed pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
"That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us," David Whelan told the Detroit News. "And a catastrophe for Paul. I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media. Our parents have had calls with him every day since his return to IK-17 on December 2d, and they will surely speak to him soon."
U.S. officials told Whelan directly about Griner's release. Still, Whelan told CNN he would like to speak with Biden directly.
"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."
Despite the disappointment, Whelan's brother said he is happy for Griner and her loved ones, adding that "there is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home."
"As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays," he wrote. "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."
Griner's release has renewed attention on Whelan's plight, prompting criticism from some Republicans over his exclusion and calls from some politicians, civil rights groups, the WNBA and other advocates to bring Whelan — and other Americans detained abroad --- home safe.
Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, said in a statement that while "we celebrate Brittney's homecoming, our hearts break for the Whelan family."
"Paul Whelan has been let down and left behind at least three times by 2 Presidents," he added. "He deserves better from his government, and our Campaign implores President Biden to urgently secure Paul's immediate return using all tools available." [Copyright 2022 NPR]