The family of the ex-Marine jailed in Russia since 2021 is “devastated” after he was excluded from the prisoner swap Wednesday that freed basketball star Brittney Griner, according to a statement.
Russian authorities detained Paul Whelan, an ex-marine working as a security contractor, in 2018 on what the U.S. said were fabricated espionage charges and sentenced him in 2020 to 16 years in prison.
While the Biden administration initially attempted to secure the release of both Whelan and Griner for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “merchant of death,” Whelan was not included in Wednesday’s diplomatic exchange.
“Our family is still devastated,” Whelan’s brother, David, said in an emailed statement to CBS News. “I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns, his hopes had soared with the knowledge that the U.S. government was taking concrete steps for once toward his release.”
“This time, US Government officials let us know in advance that Pual would be left behind,” said the statement.
It is likely the U.S. government has little in the way of offerings that would persuade Russia to give up Paul, David Whelan said.
In the news: Federal Judge Dismisses Saudi Crown Prince Lawsuit After Biden Declared Him Immune For Journalist’s Death
However, the Biden administration chose rightly in bringing Griner home without Paul Whelan, David said in the statement. It made “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
“We never forgot about Brittney, and we’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” President Joe Biden said in remarks upon Griner’s release. “This was not a choice about which American to bring home.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to release Whelan and former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, sentenced to nine years in prison last year for assaulting Russian police officers.
However, only Reed returned to the U.S. after an April 2022 prisoner swap for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a cocaine smuggler serving a 20-year sentence in U.S. custody.
“It is clear the U.S. government needs to be more assertive,” said David Whelan. “How can you continue to survive, day after day, when your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison?”
Moscow accused Paul Whelan of being in possession of a thumb drive carrying classified information, Reuters reported.
Whelan claimed subversive operators set him up with the flash drive, which he believed contained holiday pictures from a Russian acquaintance.
In June of 2020, Whelan had held up a piece of paper on which he denounced the proceedings as a “sham trial” and asked then-President Donald Trump and the leaders of Britain, Canada, and Ireland to take “decisive action”.
Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said at the time, an appeal would be made against the verdict. Questioning the court’s independence, Whelan’s family said in a statement “Russian judges are political not legal entities”.
At the time, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “The United States is outraged by the decision of a Russian court today to convict U.S. citizen Paul Whelan after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses.”