Four years ago, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan was arrested by Russian officials on suspicion of spying. He is now about three years into 16-year prison sentence.
United States officials have said the charges against Whelan are baseless, and that they spent months trying to bring home both Whelan and American basketball star Brittney Griner — but Russian officials refused to include Whelan in the prisoner swap that freed Griner last week in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Elizabeth Whelan, Paul's sister, said her family was not wholly surprised by the outcome. They'd been through this before.
"We knew that there was always a chance that, just as Trevor Reed had come home in April without Paul, that the same might happen with Brittney," Elizabeth Whelan said on GBH's All Things Considered.
"We were very pleased to see Brittney released," she continued. "It's a horrible situation for anybody in their family to be in, but it's pretty awful to have Paul still in Russia almost four years later."
The family is continuing to push the U.S. government to bring Paul home. Elizabeth said she spoke with officials yesterday about next steps.
"What else am I going to do, really?" she said. "You know, I could dissolve in a corner and cry and yell and blame people, or I can just, you know, adapt to the situation and see what can be done — to weigh in, to try to be as helpful as possible — and get it done."
Since Griner's release last week, pundits and politicians have used Paul's story to criticize the prisoner swap that Biden administration officials agreed to. That includes former President Donald Trump, who said he "turned down" a deal that would have brought Paul home in exchange for Bout.
Elizabeth said her family was surprised by the former president's comment, but stressed that they have tried to remain nonpartisan in their efforts to bring Paul home. Her brother's story, she said, is not about politics.
"Paul is a generous and funny fellow who takes really good care of my parents ... loves his dog, really enjoyed the job he was doing before all of this happened, he cares about his friends," she said. "He's more than just a talking point or a bargaining chip within our own partisan politics."
Elizabeth said she's been amazed by the broad support for bringing her brother home, noting that people have been sending messages of support and donating to the family's GoFundMe to pay legal bills and buy supplies while he's in prison.
"That has just been amazing to watch," she said. "Just to see all of these messages come in from right, from left, from middle. They are all supportive of getting Paul Whelan out of Russia."
Read the full transcript:
Judie Yuill: American basketball star Brittney Griner was freed from prison last week and sent back to her Texas home after being detained in Russia nearly 10 months ago. She was freed after the Biden administration engaged in a prisoner swap with the Kremlin for the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the "Merchant of Death."
Griner's supporters advocated for her release while another American remains in a Russian prison. Four years ago, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan was arrested by Russian officials on suspicion of spying. He was sentenced to 16 years in jail in 2020. Though the American public breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing the news of Griner's freedom, that sense of fear did not entirely diminish: Mr. Whalen was not included in the prisoner swap.
We're so lucky to be joined by Paul's sister, Elizabeth Whelan, to discuss the events of the past week and learn more about her brother. Elizabeth, welcome.
Elizabeth Whelan: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Yuill: It must be an incredibly difficult yet bittersweet time for your family right now. What was your reaction when you heard the swap would not include your brother?
Whelan: Well, it wasn't entirely a surprise in the sense that Russia has treated Paul's case differently ever since he was arrested. And we knew that there was always a chance that, just as Trevor Reed had come home in April without Paul, that the same might happen with Brittney. We were very pleased to see Brittney released, it's a horrible situation for anybody in their family to be in. But it's pretty awful to have Paul still in Russia almost four years later.
Yuill: Have you and your family had the chance to speak with your brother?
Whelan: Paul, at this time, is able to call my parents relatively frequently and speak for about 10 minutes at a time. So he was able to give a call Thursday morning after he knew that Brittney was coming back and have a conversation. And I think they've spoken since then also.
Yuill: You met with the Biden administration yesterday to discuss the next steps of strategy to bring him home. Can you tell us a little bit about that meeting and what was discussed?
Whelan: Well, I can't really tell you about what was discussed. But I have to say, this administration has been really great about reaching out to me even before I had to start pounding on desks to reach out to them to give me updates. And I think it was really necessary for us all to talk after Brittney came home, and with all the hubbub around Paul still being left behind.
I used the time not to try to elicit apologies from anyone or anything like that. I'm all about action. I used the time to throw some crazy ideas into the mix — just, I believe, brainstorming. You know, we have to put it all out there, and I want to be able to contribute in any way I can. And hopefully meetings are going forward with alacrity this week so that we can get Paul home as soon as possible.
Yuill: It seems as though you're fully resolved, and you have been very strong during all this.
Whelan: Well, you know, people say that, but it's a strength born of — I mean, what else am I going to do, really? You know, I could dissolve in a corner and cry and yell and blame people or I can just, you know, adapt to the situation and see what can be done to to weigh in, to try to be as helpful as possible and get it done.
Yuill: Now, a few days ago, your brother David publicly spoke out against former President Trump for condemning the prisoner swap, pointing out that this was the first time that Trump even uttered Paul's name, including for the two years of his presidency in which Paul was detained by the Russians. So what was your reaction to the former president's response to the news?
Whelan: Well, that was a bit stunning, wasn't it? And really, we've been trying to be very bipartisan all the way through. Three resolutions have been put out before with completely bipartisan support. You know, we have definitely tried to make sure that everyone understood that this was a situation about bringing Americans home. It had nothing to do with partisan politics. But I think that, you know, perhaps some buttons were pushed when we saw that the former president admitted that he had actually refused a situation that would have brought Paul home. And I think David felt the need to sort of answer that.
But really, beyond that, we have to leave the past in the past for the moment. And I don't know how Paul will take that news, but we have to live in the here and now, deal with the situation that has now been inherited because nothing was done at that time and tried to figure out how to get Paul home now.
Yuill: What would you like people to know that we didn't ask you?
Whelan: Oh, that's a very good question. I think I'd like: two things.
The first is that, you know, Paul has become this sort of talking point for a lot of people on "both sides of the aisle," as they say. And I'd like them to know that, you know, Paul is a generous and funny fellow who takes really good care of my parents. He was living not too far away, made sure everything was going well for them. They're in their mid-80s now. you know, loves his dog, really enjoyed the job he was doing before all of this happened. You know, cares about his friends. He's more than just a talking point or a bargaining chip within our own partisan politics.
And the other thing is, and this is really quite amazing, that as we have seen the support build for Paul — not only, you know, within Congress and the government, but really across America — despite all of this partisanship, people have been contributing to GoFundMe, sending messages of support to be sent to Paul from every political party, from every type of ideology. What they have in common, what is actually uniting them, is wanting to see Paul home. And that has just been amazing to watch, just to see all of these messages come in from right, from left, from middle. They are all supportive of getting Paul Whelan out of Russia.