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Who is Paul Whelan? Brittney Griner's freedom draws attention to U.S. Marine veteran still held in Russia

Brittney Griner freed in prisoner swap with Russia
Brittney Griner freed in prisoner swap with Russia 04:10

More than three years before the WNBA star Brittney Griner was arrested at an airport outside of Moscow for traveling with cannabis oil in her bag, another American, retired U.S. Marine Corps veteran Paul Whelan, was taken into custody in Russia's capital city.

At the time, Whelan's brother said that he was visiting Russia to attend the wedding of a Marine colleague. He was arrested in December 2018, on espionage charges that the U.S. has said are false, and sentenced to 16 years in prison following his conviction two summers later. Ahead of the conviction, Whelan was hospitalized and underwent an emergency hernia surgery, his brother said.

Whelan, now 52, is an American national who also holds citizenship in Canada, where he was born, the United Kingdom and Ireland. He was accused by Russian prosecutors of working for U.S. intelligence, and they claimed before a court in Moscow that he had been caught "red-handed" receiving a flash drive that contained classified information during his trip abroad. After maintaining his innocence throughout the legal proceedings and arguing that he had been framed, Whelan and his defense team declined to appeal the conviction, saying they hoped his freedom would be secured by way of a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia.

It has been nearly four years since Whelan was initially imprisoned, and he has since been transferred to multiple detention centers across Russia, including the infamous Soviet-era Lefortovo Prison and a remote penal colony where he is currently serving his sentence. Despite Whelan and his lawyers' hopes for a prisoner exchange to win his release, no such agreement has been reached.

American citizen Paul Whelan attends a sentencing hearing at the Moscow City Court, on charges of espionage against Russia, in June 2020. Photo by Anton NovoderezhkinTASS via Getty Images

On Thursday, Griner returned home after federal officials successfully negotiated a prisoner swap for notorious international arms dealer Viktor Bout. In April, Trevor Reed, also a Marine Corps veteran, was freed from Russian custody in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot and convicted drug smuggler previously detained in the U.S.

"We've not forgotten about Paul Whelan," said President Joe Biden, in remarks about Griner's release on Thursday, adding that U.S. officials "will never give up" on efforts to secure his release.

David Whelan, Paul Whelan's brother, praised the Biden administration for reaching a deal with Russia to bring Griner home in a statement issued after her release. However, he described his brother's continued detention as "a catastrophe" and urged the federal government to take more decisive steps toward securing his freedom.

"At some level, our family has steeled ourselves for this likelihood.  And I think, as the use of wrongful detentions and hostage diplomacy continues around the globe, it's clear the U.S. government needs to be more assertive," David wrote. "If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the U.S. needs a swifter, more direct response, and to be prepared in advance."

He noted that, despite knowing all along that the latest prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia might not include Paul Whelan, "our family is still devastated," and added, "I can't even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns."

Paul Whelan reportedly told CNN on Thursday that he was happy to hear of Griner's release, but said he was "greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up."

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