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"They've left me behind," American Paul Whelan says from Russian prison after failed bid to secure release

Paul Whelan tells BBC he feels left behind
Paul Whelan tells BBC News he feels left behind by U.S. 03:16

Paul Whelan, an American who's been imprisoned in Russia for 5 years on espionage charges that both he and the U.S. government dismiss as baseless, has said it's "unfathomable" that the Biden administration has "left me behind" while other Americans have been freed in prisoner swaps. Whelan told CBS News' partner network BBC News in a phone interview from prison that he feared he would be left out of any future prisoner swap with Russia, too.

"A serious betrayal. It's extremely frustrating," he told the BBC. "I know that the U.S. has come up with all sorts of proposals — serious proposals — but it's not what the Russians are after. So they keep going back and forth. The only problem is, it's my life that's draining away while they do this." 

"It's five years. It's unfathomable to me that they've left me behind," said Whelan, who is also a citizen of the U.K., Ireland and Canada.

paul whelan state media video
Paul Whelan seen refusing to answer questions in a Russian state media video, Aug. 28, 2023. Russian state media

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department said Russia had rejected a "new and significant" proposal to secure the release of Whelan, along with Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in Russia, on unsubstantiated espionage charges, during a reporting trip in March. 

Gerschkovich is still awaiting a trial, but Whelan, who was arrested on similar charges in 2018 while attending a friend's wedding, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020. He and his family have vehemently denied all of the allegations against him and say he's being used as a political pawn by Russia.

The U.S. government has classified both men as being wrongfully detained by Russia.

In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the families of Americans who are being detained or held hostage to not give up hope. He specifically addressed the cases of Gershkovich and Whelan during a news conference Wednesday.

"All I can say is this: We're very actively working on it, and we'll leave no stone unturned to see if we can't find the right way to get them home and to get them home as soon as possible," Blinken told reporters.

Blinken said their release was "very much a focus of our actions and activities" but he couldn't provide details about the efforts.

Speaking Tuesday at a regular press briefing at the State Department, spokesperson Mathew Miller reiterated that Russia had rejected "significant proposals" for the two men's release, "one as recently as a few weeks ago. And we will continue to look for ways to engage with the Russian government to bring them home."

Evan Gershkovich, left, and Paul Whelan
Evan Gershkovich, left, and Paul Whelan are currently detained in Russia on espionage charges that the U.S. says are unfounded. The Wall Street Journal; Sofia Sandurskaya/AP

Miller would not elaborate when asked about what, if anything, Russia had requested in exchange for freeing the men when it rejected the latest U.S. offers.

According to CBS Detroit, Whelan's brother David said in an email earlier this month that the White House was telling the family Paul's case remained a top priority, but that he was unsure what that meant anymore.

"It has taken nearly twelve months for the U.S. to gather its resources and make a singular offer for Paul's freedom," David Whelan said in the email. "The offer was rejected. And we are once again back at square one, no further ahead than we were back on December 28, 2018. If there remain any stones to unturn, now is the time to uncover them."

"Now would be a great time for the White House to show they were willing to do more than just air another platitude," David Whelan said, calling for President Biden to meet with his family, which he said "would go a long way to reassure us that the president will keep his promise to Paul and will not miss an opportunity to bring Paul home to our family."

The U.S. has negotiated prisoner swaps with Russia in the past, including the high-profile 2022 deal that saw basketball star Brittney Griner freed by Moscow in exchange for the U.S. releasing long-jailed arms dealer Viktor Bout, whose illicit deeds earned him the nickname,"the Merchant of Death."

Whelan told the BBC that conditions at the prison camp where he's being held had "declined seriously," specifically noting damp and black mold, and he was concerned that he would again be excluded from any new prisoner swap agreed by Washington and Moscow. 

"I am worried that there'll be a deal that'll leave me behind," he said in the phone interview. "With each case, my case is going to the back of the line — is being left in the dust."

-Alex Sundby contributed reporting.

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