Paul Whelan sends desperate message to Biden from Russian prison on Christmas Eve

Whelan has been detained in Russia for nearly five years

Bevan Hurley,Megan Sheets
Monday 25 December 2023 18:42 GMT
American Paul Whelan Attacked in Russian Prison

An American jailed in Russia has issued a desperate message to President Joe Biden pleading for his freedom.

Paul Whelan, 54, is nearing the five-year anniversary of his detainment in Russia. The security contractor was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison on disputed espionage charges.

On Christmas Eve, Mr Whelan reached out to Maryland news outlet WTOP with his message for Mr Biden: “Mr President. You promised to bring me home. I’m still here. There has to be more that you can do to secure my release.”

He went on to express his belief that the president is not doing enough to secure his freedom amid failing diplomatic efforts - calling him “the guy that made the decision to leave me behind twice”.

“My message to him is quite simply: I’ve been told that everyone is doing all they can and that my release is a top priority. Promises have been made, and I need everyone who has made those promises to now man up and honor them,” Mr Whelan said.

His comments to WTOP come weeks after he was allegedly attacked at IK-17, a labor penal colony eight hours outside of Moscow.

“I’m quite depressed,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I mean, it’s Christmastime. I’m away from family. I’ve been here five years. I’m surrounded by criminals. It’s not a healthy environment.”

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he is in talks with US officials to free Mr Whelan and fellow jailed American Evan Gershkovich, but that making a deal is “not easy”.

Mr Putin on 14 December said the Kremlin hopes to “find a solution” to see the prisoners returned to the US, but any deal “must suit the Russian side as well” as the White House continues to push for a resolution.

“We have contacts with American partners on this matter. A dialogue is ongoing,” Mr Putin said in remarks during his annual year-end press conference.

“It is not easy; I won’t go into details now, but overall, it seems to me that we are speaking a language understandable to each other.”

Mr Putin’s comments followed Russia recently rejected a significant new US proposal to free the two men, a US State Department spokesman said last week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is in talks to free two US prisoners (Associated Press)

The US had offered to swap a significant number of Russian nationals detained on espionage charges overseas in exchange for the release of the two Americans, sources told CNN.

Efforts to free the two prisoners, who the US says are being held on bogus espionage charges, are being led by Mr Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Mr Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was arrested in March while on a reporting trip to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, about 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) east of Moscow.

He was the first American journalist to be charged with espionage in Russia since 1986, and is being held at Moscow's notorious Lefortovo prison.

The US State Department and WSJ leadership have strenuously denied the charges, which carry a 20-year prison sentence if he is convicted.

A court in Moscow recently ruled he must remain in prison until 30 January. The Russian Foreign Ministry has said it will only consider a swap for Mr Gershkovich after a verdict in his trial.

Mr Whelan, however, worries that the US already used up its leverage for another swap, after having already done two since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested in February 2022 after she was found to have cannabis in her luggage, was freed in exchange for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout in December last year. Former US Marine Trevor Reed was exchanged for Russian smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.

“[The US government] basically abandoned me here without any options for a future trade,” Mr Whelan told WTOP.

“They have no bargaining position now. And knowing that the government has done that is quite depressing. And regardless of all the promises that are being made and all the optimism that I’m hearing, I’m still here.”

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