The release of WNBA star Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap with Russia has brought renewed attention to the case of former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018.
Griner’s case received outsized media attention compared to Whelan given her status as a star women’s basketball player and Olympic gold medalist. But Whelan has been detained in Russia longer, and Thursday’s announcement, while celebrated by many, has raised difficult questions about why the U.S. was able to secure Griner’s freedom but not Whelan’s.
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” President Biden said in remarks shortly after Griner’s release was made public.
Griner was arrested in February on charges that she illegally brought vape cartridges containing hashish oil into Russia. She was convicted on drug smuggling charges and sentenced in August to serve nine years in prison and had been recently transferred to a penal colony. Advocates had raised particular concern about her fate given she is a Black, gay woman.
The White House announced Thursday that Griner was freed in exchange for the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms deal who was serving a 25-year sentence for charges related to weapons trafficking.
Whelan has spent four years imprisoned in Russia and in 2020 was convicted on espionage charges. The U.S. has determined his detention to be unlawful and criticized the Russian criminal allegations and court process as a sham. The State Department said last week he had been transferred to a prison hospital in recent weeks, but has since been returned to the penal colony where he is serving his sentence.
A senior administration official said Thursday they believe the Russians are holding Whelan’s release to a higher bar than Griner’s because of the espionage charges.
“We as a government have sought to bring Paul Whelan home as well. We did so in good faith with the Russians and proposed multiple different options. Regrettably, due to the nature of the sham espionage charges Russia levied against Paul, the Russians have treated, continue to treat, his situation differently from Brittney’s and rejected each and every one of our proposals for his release.”
In an interview with CNN from a Russian prison, Whelan said he was surprised he was not included in the swap, but seemed to agree that it was because Russia is holding him to a different standard because of the espionage charges.
While the Biden administration spent recent months trying to negotiate a deal that would lead to the release of Griner and Whelan together, including a reported deal that involved the release of Bout, the senior administration official said Russia ultimately rejected efforts to free Whelan.
“This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none,” the official said, speaking in a call with reporters shortly after Griner’s release was made public.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, released a statement following Griner’s release calling it the right decision by the administration to secure her freedom. He said he’d been in touch with the Biden administration prior to the public announcement, giving the family time to process the news that Paul Whelan would not be coming home at this time.
It is the second time this year the Whelan family has learned the U.S. had secured the release of an American wrongfully detained in Russia while Whelan remains imprisoned there.
The White House in April was able to free former Marine Trevor Reed as part of a prisoner exchange for a Russian citizen, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been serving out a 20-year sentence on drug charges.
At the time, David Whelan expressed happiness for Reed’s release but questioned whether Biden was willing to make the choices necessary to bring his brother home.
In recent weeks, the Whelan family had raised concerns about Paul Whelan’s status after they did not hear from him during the Thanksgiving holiday or on his father’s birthday, two dates where they were typically in touch.
They have since heard from him, but David Whelan on Thursday appeared pessimistic about his brother’s case moving forward.
“We do worry about what’s in Paul’s future,” Whelan said Thursday on CNN. “I think it’s become clear that the U.S. doesn’t have any concessions that the Russian government wants for Paul. So I’m not really sure what the future holds.”
Laura Kelly contributed.