Michigan man remains imprisoned in Russia though Brittney Griner is freed

Paul Whelan was left behind. Again.

President Joe Biden announced Thursday morning his administration traded convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout — who'd been serving time in a U.S. federal prison since 2011 — for Brittney Griner, a WNBA superstar who was arrested in February after cannabis oil was found in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.

The deal doesn't include Whelan, a Novi resident and former BorgWarner global security chief, who was arrested nearly four years ago in Moscow on what the U.S. says are false charges of espionage. Whelan, 52, remains in a Russian labor camp, where he is to continue serving out a 16-year sentence.

"We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan," Biden said Thursday morning. "This was not a choice about which American to bring home. … Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's. ... We will never give up."

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying in Moscow at the end of 2018, stands in a cage while waiting for a detention hearing in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying in Moscow at the end of 2018, stands in a cage while waiting for a detention hearing in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.

Whelan brother: 'Biden administration made the right decision'

The deal to swap Bout for Griner is a "catastrophe" for Whelan, his twin brother, David Whelan, said Thursday in an email message to journalists. Detention of the two-time Olympic gold medalist in Russia brought attention to Whelan's case.

"I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home," David Whelan said. "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. The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen."

This time, the U.S. government alerted the Whelan family Wednesday that the prisoner exchange was happening, and that Paul would be left behind in the swap for Griner.

"That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul. I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media."

More: Accused spy Paul Whelan would not be first American set up by Russians

More: Paul Whelan and family continue to fight a year after he's accused of spying in Russia

Whelan left behind in April swap as well

The Whelan family got no advance notice in April, when the U.S. negotiated the release of Trevor Reed, another American wrongfully detained in Russia, in exchange for Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko.

At the time, Whelan's brother David asked: "Is President Biden's failure to bring Paul home an admission that some cases are too hard to solve? Is the administration's piecemeal approach picking low-hanging fruit? And how does a family know that their loved one's case is too difficult, a hostage too far out of reach?"

Another disappointment came when Biden called Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, earlier this year to offer assurances of his commitment to securing Griner's freedom. No similar call was made to the Whelan family, despite multiple requests from Elizabeth Whelan for a meeting with the president.

After news reports about the apparent snub emerged, the president called Elizabeth Whelan in early July.

Paul Whelan attends a hearing to extend his arrest at the Lefortovsky district court in Moscow, Russia, 24 May 2019. Paul Whelan, a citizen of the United States, Britain, Canada and Ireland, was detained on suspicion of spying by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) at the end of December 2018 in Moscow.
Paul Whelan attends a hearing to extend his arrest at the Lefortovsky district court in Moscow, Russia, 24 May 2019. Paul Whelan, a citizen of the United States, Britain, Canada and Ireland, was detained on suspicion of spying by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) at the end of December 2018 in Moscow.

Swap took place in United Arab Emirates

Griner was en route to the United States Thursday morning from the United Arab Emirates, where the prisoner transfer took place, said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Roger Carstens, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, accompanied her.

"Cherelle spoke to her wife, Brittney, who is now on her way back to the United States and to her wife’s loving embrace," Blinken said.

"While we celebrate Brittney’s release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly. Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian government has not yet been willing to bring a long-overdue end to his wrongful detention. I wholeheartedly wish we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane with Brittney. Nevertheless, we will not relent in our efforts to bring Paul and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home to their loved ones where they belong."

'The choice was ... one or none'

Russian negotiators didn't see Whelan's case as similar to Griner's, Blinken said at an event Thursday with Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers.

Rather, he said, Russia has “continued to see Paul’s case through the lens of sham espionage charges. They’re treating him differently than they treated Brittney.

"In this moment, there (was) no way to bring him home."

An administration official was able to speak with Whelan in the last 48 hours, Blinken said, adding that Whelan was “extraordinarily gracious as well as being extraordinarily courageous."

"This was not a choice about which American to bring home," he said. "The choice was, in this instance, one or none.”

'How many times do I need to write that?'

David Whelan stressed that his family does not begrudge Griner her freedom.

"As I have often remarked, Brittney's and Paul's cases were never really intertwined," he said. "It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other. The sentiments I shared in April about Trevor are unchanged: This is the event we wish for so much for our own family. She will be reunited with her family.  Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage.

"But how many more times do I need to write that?"

The Whelan family had steeled itself for the possibility that Paul could be left behind again. Yet, "our family is still devastated," David Whelan said.

"I can't even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly four years of this injustice. His hopes had soared with the knowledge that the U.S. government was taking concrete steps for once towards his release. He'd been worrying about where he'd live when he got back to the U.S.

"And now what?  How do you continue to survive, day after day, when you know that your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison? I can't imagine he retains any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point. It's clear that the U.S. government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan. And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes."

Whelan says he's not a spy, but 'Mr. Bean on holiday'

Whelan, 52, lived in Novi before he was arrested Dec. 28, 2018, in his room at Moscow's upscale Metropol Hotel.

The Russian Foreign Ministry alleged Whelan, a former Marine, was caught in an act of espionage, with a USB drive that contained classified information. Whelan insisted he was set up, simply a tourist attending the wedding of a friend.

"Russia says it caught James Bond on a spy mission. In reality, they abducted Mr. Bean on holiday," Whelan told journalists during a detention hearing at Moscow City Court in October 2019.

More: Mural highlights face of Whelan, other Americans held abroad in effort to bring them home

More: Paul Whelan's sister gets call from President Joe Biden

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying in Russia, arrives to attend his hearing at a court in Moscow on August 23, 2019.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying in Russia, arrives to attend his hearing at a court in Moscow on August 23, 2019.

Whelan faced harsh conditions in Russian prison

For more than a year, Whelan was held in a cell at the notorious Stalin-era Lefortovo Prison, where initially he was denied such staples as toilet paper and soap. He said guards threatened, abused and harassed him.

He also wasn't allowed to make calls home to his parents, Edward and Rosemary Whelan, who live in Manchester, Michigan. His mail was censored, and visits from his lawyers and embassy representatives were extremely limited.

"This is typical prisoner-of-war isolation technique," Whelan told journalists at a court hearing in May 2019. "They're trying to run me down so that I will talk to them."

His health also suffered. He lost weight. An inguinal hernia that was a nuisance before his trip to Russia became a pressing concern. An ambulance was called during one of Whelan's court hearings. He initially refused surgery because he said he didn't trust Russian doctors. But ultimately, it couldn't wait any longer. Whelan underwent emergency hernia repair surgery in May 2020.

More: As Brittney Griner's wife gets Biden call, Paul Whelan's family has to keep waiting

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

More than a year had passed after his arrest with no trial, but the U.S. government had not declared Whelan among Americans illegally detained abroad — a point that agitated his family.

"We have an overriding frustration with the approach that has been taken so far, which is the American government as a whole — the State Department and administration, in particular — is ... going to let the Russian judicial process play out and take this to trial, as if Paul actually could possibly be a spy, and therefore needed to be on trial," his sister Elizabeth Whelan said at the time.

"This is ridiculous," she said. "Russia has a legal system but not a judicial system. Everybody knows that once you get on this conveyor belt, that the end result before you're popped off at the other end is 100% chance of conviction and sentencing."

She was right.

U.S. ambassador: Russian case a 'mockery of justice'

Whelan was convicted during a closed-door trial in June 2020, and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian labor camp.

John Sullivan, then-U.S. ambassador in Moscow, described the conviction a "mockery of justice."

Whelan was taken to IK-17, a gulag in the Republic of Mordovia, about an eight-hour drive southeast of Moscow. There, he spent hours each day cutting threads from newly made prison uniforms. He later was promoted to sewing buttonholes.

More: Paul Whelan's sister, after Trevor Reed's release, struggles to be heard

More: Surprise US prisoner swap with Russia for Trevor Reed tough for Paul Whelan's family

His family continued to lobby on Whelan's behalf, but it wasn't until July 2021 that the Senate passed a resolution calling on the Russian government to provide evidence of Whelan's alleged acts of espionage or release him; the House had passed a similar resolution in September 2019.

The U.S. State Department began to refer to Whelan as illegally detained and publicly decried his ongoing detention as wrongful.

On the third anniversary of his arrest, his brother David wrote in an email to journalists: "The FSB stole Paul Whelan's freedom three years ago. Now Paul sits in a Russian labor colony, waiting for justice after being convicted in a secret trial with secret evidence. I'm sure he waits in vain. At least he can hope for his freedom.

"It's not just the injustice of Russian hostage diplomacy. It's the stolen years with our parents as they age, missing Christmases and birthdays and family time. It's the stolen life, as one by one, Paul lost his job, his home, his ability to communicate and be with friends. He lost everything he'd known.

"We remind Paul that people still care about his case and his false imprisonment. ... The Biden administration has raised Paul's wrongful detention in their many contacts with Russian counterparts, including by President Biden himself. We hope that 2022 is the year that Paul's freedom is restored to him. We look forward to his return and hope that it happens before a fourth anniversary comes around."

Now, that's looking far less likely.

On Thursday, David Whelan lamented: "It will be the fourth Christmas Mum and Dad live through without Paul.  They will be 85 and 83 on the fourth anniversary of his detention (Dec. 28, 2022). Time is Paul's, and our, enemy.  The likelihood that our parents will see their son again diminishes each day his wrongful detention continues.  Increasingly, I worry that Paul himself won't survive 12 more years in a Russian labor colony.  He has tried to stay healthy but one wonders how long that determination to keep going can endure."

The family set up a GoFundMe account that David Whelan said will allow them to continue to support his brother's needs in prison.

Contact Kristen Shamus: kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus. 

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Brittney Griner freed from Russian prison. Paul Whelan is left behind.