State Department told Paul Whelan's family to 'make more noise' to win release from Russia

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A U.S. State Department official told the family of Paul Whelan that they need to "make more noise," and "be a squeakier wheel" in advocating for the Michigan man's release from a Russian labor camp to get government action to bring him home, his brother said.

"This is a hard message to hear. The family of a wrongful detainee shouldn't be bearing the burden of persuading American government officials to act to secure the release of an American citizen wrongfully detained," David Whelan wrote in an email message to the Free Press and other news outlets.

"It's frustrating. What sort of circus does a family need to put on to make more noise, to squeak louder, to move the immovable levers of government?"

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Paul Whelan, 52, of Novi, was the head of global security for Auburn Hills-based auto parts supplier BorgWarner when he was arrested in December 2018 in Moscow and charged with espionage. He was convicted in a closed-door hearing in June 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian labor camp.

U.S. government leaders and Whelan's family say the charges were bogus, and that Whelan, a former Marine, went to Russia for the wedding of a friend, not as a spy.

"This suggests that people in the Biden Administration need to — still, after 41 months — be persuaded that Paul's case deserves action," David Whelan wrote. "We know that (they) ... are aware of Paul's case. So additional notoriety isn't needed for its own sake. But apparently we need to do more because not everyone is onboard with securing Paul's release."

The Whelan family has done roughly 40 media interviews in recent weeks and was part of a rally in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to demand the release of Americans wrongfully detained abroad, he said. His sister, Elizabeth Whelan, has made more than 20 visits to Capitol Hill.

Elizabeth Whelan, sister of Paul Whelan, speaks during a news conference to launch the Bring Our Families Home Campaign held by family members of hostages being held around the world on May 4, 2022 in Washington, D.C. The family members urged the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress to take decisive action to bring wrongfully detained Americans home.

A State Department spokesperson told the Free Press on Friday that it will not provide details about any private conversations that were had with the Whelan family.

"We remain in regular contact with the families of those held hostage or wrongfully detained; we are grateful for their partnership and feedback," the spokesperson said. "We continue to work to ensure we are communicating and sharing information in a way useful to our families.

"The president has been very clear about the need to see wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan released, and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad."

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U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, a Democrat from Waterford, took to Twitter on Thursday to express her frustration when she learned of the Whelan family's conversation with State Department officials.

"With all due respect, we have been working alongside the Whelan family for 4 years," she wrote. "Two unanimous House resolutions have been passed. Multiple heart wrenching press conferences. Countless radio, print and tv interviews. Hundreds of social media posts. Are we not 'loud' enough?"

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican from Tipton, told the Free Press on Friday that the Whelans have been very vocal and "unwavering in their advocacy for Paul throughout his wrongful imprisonment."

"No family should have to go through this adversity," he said. "We will not stop pushing for Paul’s release, just as we have done over the past three years, until he is reunited with his family in Michigan.”

In late April, another American detained in Russia, Trevor Reed of Texas, was brought home as part of a surprise exchange for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko.

Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, is escorted for a hearing to decide to extend his detention at the Lefortovo Court in Moscow on October 24, 2019.
Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, is escorted for a hearing to decide to extend his detention at the Lefortovo Court in Moscow on October 24, 2019.

Like Whelan, Reed is a former Marine. He was arrested in summer 2019 after Russian authorities said he assaulted an officer following a night of heavy drinking. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, though his family has maintained his innocence and the U.S. government has described him as unjustly detained, the same designation given to Whelan.

"Ever since the Trevor Reed and Konstantin Yaroshenko release, we've been asked about what made Paul's case different?" David Whelan said. "Why was he left behind?  Perhaps if Paul had been sicker, he might have been included in the exchange? Perhaps if we'd met with the president, it would have meant Paul was released too?"

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David Whelan had questions of his own: "At what point has a family sacrificed enough to get the U.S. government's attention: bankrupt elderly parents? lost jobs? deteriorating health? lost homes? We have 13 more years to go and it would be nice to know what we'll be expected to give before the U.S. government acts."

In addition to Whelan, Russia also has WNBA star Brittney Griner in custody. Griner was detained in February after authorities said she tried to enter the country with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. If she's convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison.

Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus. 

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Paul Whelan's family told to 'make more noise' to bring him home