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Paul Whelan, wrongfully detained in Russia, says he thinks "the wheels are turning" toward release

U.S. journalist meets lawyers in Russia
Paul Whelan's brother on U.S. journalist detained in Russia 04:12

Washington — Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen who is wrongfully detained in Russia, is worried he could be left behind again, but said he's confident "the wheels are turning" toward his release. 

"I remain positive and confident on a daily basis that the wheels are turning. I just wish they would turn a little bit more quickly," Whelan told CNN in a phone interview on Sunday. 

Whelan is imprisoned in Mordovia and serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges, which the U.S. denies. He's been detained in Russia since December 2018 and has watched as the U.S. made two prisoner swaps for the release of professional basketball star Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who were both wrongfully detained in Russia after Whelan's arrest.

Russia has since detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who the U.S. has determined is also wrongfully detained, on espionage charges. 

The Whelan family has expressed concern that the White House and State Department are diverting resources away from his case, and fear that he could be left behind again as the U.S. seeks the release of Gershkovich. 

"That's an extreme worry for me and my family," Whelan told CNN. 

But Whelan said he now has more confidence in the efforts to get him home than he did months ago. 

"I have been told that I won't be left behind, and I have been told that although Evan's case is a priority, mine is also a priority, and people are cognizant of the fact that this is having an extremely negative impact on me and my family," Whelan said. "And I'm told that the government is working tirelessly to get me out of here and to get me home so they can then focus effort on Evan and his case." 

"I feel that my life shouldn't be considered less valuable or important than others who have been previously traded," he added. "And I think there are people in D.C. that feel the same way, and they're moving towards a compromise and resolution to this as quickly as they can." 

Whelan's seemed more optimistic in his comments to CNN than when his family shared an update on his well-being after Gershkovich was detained. His family said in April that Whelan's "resilience is shaken" and he "seems rattled like never before" as he feared a deal would be made for Gershkovich's release that did not include him.  

He partly attributed his renewed confidence to  President Biden's speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last month, in which Mr. Biden said he was working to secure the release of wrongfully detained Americans, including Whelan. He said he was also able to watch his sister, Elizabeth, attend the United Nations Security Council meeting chaired Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last month. 

"The public displays and events such as the press corps dinner and the UN visit demonstrate to not just me, privately, but to the world that our leaders are impacted by this, and they do want me back, and they are working to try to get me home," Whelan said. 

After the U.S. ambassador to Russia recently visited Whelan in prison, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said his release "remains an absolute priority" and the U.S. government "will continue to engage Russian authorities on his case." 

The State Department reiterated that Whelan is a high priority in a briefing with reporters on Monday. 

"I can assure him and I can assure his family members that we have no higher priority than returning him safely home to the United States," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. 

Miller declined to say whether Russia has engaged on the "serious proposal" Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered to secure his release. Blinken said in March that the U.S. had made an offer and urged Moscow to accept it. 

"We oftentimes have found that it is not conducive to our efforts — to return wrongful detainees home — to speak about the details of those efforts," Miller said. 

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