American imprisoned in Russia calls CNN to push for his release

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Paul Whelan, the American corporate official imprisoned in Russia since 2018, called CNN from his prison camp on Sunday to urge the United States to speed up its efforts for his release.

“I remain positive and confident on a daily basis that the wheels are turning,”he told the news network. “I just wish they would turn a little bit more quickly.”

Whelan’s case drew a great deal of attention at the time the U.S. was seeking to obtain the release of WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner last year. There were hopes that the two could be released together, but the deal Washington negotiated in December was a one-for-one swap: Griner for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

American negotiators were unable to secure Whelan’s release at the same time as Griner’s — similar to the case of a former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed, who was exchanged in April 2022 in another one-for-one swap.

Whelan’s name has come up again as the Biden administration tries to secure the release of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested in March and accused of espionage. Whelan told CNN on Sunday he was concerned that he could once again be left behind in Russia if a deal were negotiated for Gershkovich.

“That’s an extreme worry for me and my family,” he told CNN, adding: “I feel that my life shouldn’t be considered less valuable or important than others who have been previously traded.”

He also told CNN that prisoners from his prison camp in the region of Mordovia had been recruited to fight in Ukraine, and that international sanctions were having an impact on the quality and quantity of what is being provided to the prisoners.

Elizabeth Whelan, his sister, complained in February that lawmakers who had mentioned her brother in connection with Griner had seemingly lost interest after Griner’s release.

“We haven’t heard from any of them,” she said in February. “No one has called.”

But on May 4, Lynne M. Tracy, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, visited Whelan in prison.

“Paul has been wrongfully detained in Russia for more than four years, and his release remains an absolute priority,” the U.S. Embassy in Moscow tweeted.

Whelan was arrested in Russia in December 2018 on espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020. Both his family and the U.S. government maintain that Whelan, a former Marine employed as a corporate security executive for BorgWarner, was unjustly accused and convicted.

CNN said Sunday evening that this was the third time Whelan had called reporter Jennifer Hansler.