Who is Paul Whelan? Russian prisoner swap brings home Brittney Griner; Whelan still imprisoned

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Amid the Thursday release of WNBA star Brittney Griner as part of a prisoner exchange with Russia, President Joe Biden said the U.S. will continue efforts to bring home Paul Whelan, an American who has been jailed in Russia for nearly four years.

Russia freed Griner, whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges sparked international outcry, in exchange for the U.S. releasing Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Left behind in the high-profile prisoner swap was Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive.

"This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said Thursday in remarks at the White House. "...Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up."

PRISONER EXCHANGE: Brittney Griner released from Russian prison as part of prisoner exchange for Viktor Bout

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested for alleged spying, listens to the verdict in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court in Moscow on June 15, 2020.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested for alleged spying, listens to the verdict in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court in Moscow on June 15, 2020.

Who is Paul Whelan?

Whelan, 52, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges his family and the U.S. government have called baseless. The U.S. classified him as wrongfully detained.

A former Marine, Whelan was convicted by Russia in 2020 of spying and was sentenced to 16 years in a maximum-security prison colony.

Whelan pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer asserted he was set up by Russian intelligence services. While visiting Russia for a friend's wedding, Whelan received a USB flash drive that allegedly contained classified information, Whelan's lawyer said.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the U.S. ambassador in Moscow denounced Whelan's trial as unfair.

Whelan is the director of global security for a Michigan auto supplier and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was born in Canada to British parents and holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports.

WHO IS VIKTOR BOUT?: Arms dealer and 'Merchant of Death' freed in exchange for Brittney Griner

Whelan's family responds

Paul Whelan's brother, David Whelan, celebrated Griner's release but said he worries for his brother, calling the day "a public disappointment for us" and "a catastrophe for Paul."

"Paul is still a hostage," David Whelan said Thursday in an email circulated to media.

"I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way 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. There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home," he said in the email, noting that the Biden administration had let him know in advance of Griner's release that his brother would be left behind.

Biden said in his remarks at the White House that he has been in touch with Whelan’s family.

“My thoughts and prayers with them today," Biden said. "They have to have such mixed emotions today. We'll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul's release. I guarantee that. I say that to his family: I guarantee you."

BRITTNEY GRINER TIMELINE: Detailed look at WNBA star's conviction, appeal and release in Russia

Whelan recently in prison hospital; family makes contact

News of the prisoner exchange comes days after Whelan's family members said they were able to make contact with him after he was unexpectedly unreachable in November.

Whelan's brother, David, said in an emailed statement to the Associated Press that Paul called his parents on Dec. 2, the first time family members had heard from him since Nov. 23.

The family was told Paul Whelan was moved to a prison hospital, but the reason he was at the hospital was unclear.

Alexei Tyurkin, the chairman of the prison monitoring commission in Russia's Mordovia region where Whelan is jailed, said he was in the prison hospital for "planned treatment," but did not elaborate, according to state news agency RIA-Novosti. The State Department later said Whelan was returned to the prison colony from the hospital.

Whelan told family members he was given "special dispensation" to call, indicating he had been prohibited from calling previously, his brother said. Whelan has previously said he has been threatened, abused and unable to access medical care during his imprisonment.

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard and Rebecca Morin, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Paul Whelan still imprisoned in Russia after Griner swap: What we know