Paul Whelan marks five years in Russian detention

Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of spying and arrested in Russia stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on August 23, 2019.

Paul Whelan is marking five years in Russian detention on Thursday.Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty ImagesCNN — 

Paul Whelan marked five years in Russian detention on Thursday – a grim milestone that the ex-US Marine hoped he would never see.

“It’s surreal,” Whelan told CNN in a call from his remote Russian prison camp last week.

“It’s unbelievable to me that I’ve been here five years, that we’ve had two governments that haven’t been able to get me out of here,” he said.

In the half-dozen phone conversations Whelan has had with CNN since, he has expressed both confidence that the US government is working to secure his release and immense frustration that those efforts have not yielded success.

“I would ask President Biden to pull out the stops, cross the red lines, and do whatever needs to be done to get this case resolved and to get me home. If my life is not worth that effort, then I don’t know what is,” Whelan told CNN last week.

In recent phone calls, Whelan has voiced exasperation that the US claims his case is “a priority” but has not found a way to bring him home. He has on multiple occasions conveyed a sense of abandonment and concern he will be left behind again, citing the release of two other Americans from Russia in a prisoner swap last year.

“I am wondering what they’re going to do next. If there’s no diplomatic solution, what comes next? What are they prepared to do to honor that promise to get me home? If they’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall hoping that something sticks and they can come up with a quick agreement, that’s not a very good policy,” Whelan told CNN in late November.

Whelan has also increasingly expressed fear for his safety, telling CNN last week that he was being targeted by an official at the prison camp after being assaulted by another prisoner.

‘I would never have come here’

Whelan was arrested in Moscow on December 28, 2018, which he says he visited for a friend’s wedding, and imprisoned on charges of espionage that he has consistently and vehemently denied.

“If I had known that there would be any sort of problem, I would never have come here,” Whelan said last week.

He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020. He has been serving that sentence at a remote prison camp in Mordovia, where he does manual labor at the prison’s clothing factory.

Whelan was designated as wrongfully detained by the US State Department in May 2020.

For Whelan and his family, the anniversary of his arrest is an acute reminder of how much they have lost. But the painful fact that five years have gone by is never far from their minds.

“This is five years of my life and I can’t get back, five years of my parents’ life that we can’t get back,” Whelan told CNN in October.

Whelan’s parents are in their 80s, and he told CNN in May, “I know this is taking its toll on my parents and that’s the unfortunate thing.”

“It’s a concern for me that I won’t see them again,” Whelan echoed in the call last week.

The family’s beloved dog, Flora, about whom Whelan spoke fondly during his May call with CNN, passed away the following month.

“I never thought I would be here not to see my cat, not to see my dog and they both passed away. Relatives have passed away. Friends have moved on. I’m very concerned that I won’t get home to see my parents,” Whelan told CNN last week.

“It’s been like running through a labyrinth and we’re still not out yet,” said Elizabeth Whelan, his sister. She told CNN in mid-December that the plight has also taken a large financial toll on the family.

Paul Whelan has repeatedly stressed his will to stay strong through his detention, but in his most recent conversation with CNN last week, he said that keeping his spirits up has become “very difficult.” He said he told the US Ambassador to Russia that he struggles with depression.

“I started the day with singing… the national anthems for my four countries and you know, things get progressively worse from there,” he described.

“It’s extremely difficult, being innocent and in prison and waiting for people to help you. It’s a disintegrating experience, your mind, your body, your soul, everything,” Whelan said.

He told CNN on multiple occasions that he is encouraged by cards and letters of support, but they are often withheld for months by Russian authorities.

‘A day-to-day’ fight to secure his release

Both Whelan and his family have also acknowledged that the US government has made efforts to secure his release, but they want to see the process move much more quickly.

In several conversations with CNN, Whelan has denounced the fact that he was not included in two prior prisoner swaps in 2022 that freed fellow wrongfully detained Americans Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner last year. He said he thought it was a mistake for President Joe Biden to trade Viktor Bout “as quickly as he did.”

Whelan said in October that he told Secretary of State Antony Blinken that, “leaving me here the first time painted a target on my back and leaving me here the second time basically signed a death warrant.” US officials have said that the Russians refused to include him in those swaps.

The Biden administration has put forward several “significant” proposals to the Russians for Whelan. One was presented and rejected in late November to try to bring home both Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is also designated as wrongfully detained.

Whelan said the US government informed him “generally” of the offer and Russia’s refusal. He told CNN he was unsurprised Russia rejected the deal, noting Moscow’s reported desire for Vadim Krasikov, a convicted assassin imprisoned in Germany.

In comments at a press conference in mid-December, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that dialogue is “ongoing” on the detainees, but “the American side must hear us and make a certain decision — one that suits the Russian side as well.”

State Department spokesperson Matt Miller responded by saying the US “would welcome” Russia “negotiating in good faith.”

Roger Carstens, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, told CNN that, “In my perfect world,” both Whelan and Gershkovich “come home at the same time. They both come home soon.”

“We are working daily on this…lots of people are throwing themselves into this. It’s a day-to-day fight. It’s not something we put down and come back to fourteen days later or even three days later,” he said.

“For far too long, Paul and his family have suffered the consequences of the Russian government’s decision to wrongfully detain U.S. citizens,” Blinken said in a statement Wednesday. “Using people as political pawns is unacceptable. Since President Biden took office, the United States has secured the release of more than forty wrongful detainees, and not a day goes by without intensive U.S. Government efforts to bring Paul home.”

“We will not rest until he is safely back with his family where he belongs,” he said.

Elizabeth Whelan said that one of the most frustrating aspects of her brother’s case is that she knows “the intense efforts that have been made.”

“Knowing that everyone is trying so hard and that we still have run into this brick wall, I think that it’s very difficult,” she said.

“Having this milestone come up only weeks after we find out that a really significant offer was made and turned down for Paul and for Evan, it just leaves us not knowing at all what’s next,” she said. “You sort of feel like you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, maybe like the Grand Canyon, and you’re looking across this vast expanse, and how do you get to the other side, how do you get to a solution that brings Paul home?”

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