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Paul Whelan: ‘I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here’ in Russian jail

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‘I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.’ 

That was detained American Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018, speaking with CNN on the day that another U.S. detainee, Brittney Griner, was released in a U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange. 

“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up,” Whelan, an ex-U.S. Marine and Michigan corporate-security executive being held in Russia on espionage charges that the U.S. government says are baseless, told CNN.

He also said he was surprised not to be included in the prisoner swap that is bringing Griner, who’d been incarcerated in Russia for nine months over drug charges for possession and smuggling of less than a gram of hashish oil, home in time for Christmas. Griner was let go in exchange for the release by the U.S. of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is known as the “Merchant of Death.”

Whelan told CNN that he “was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon” to get him back home, as well.

Read more: Brittney Griner release: ‘Today my family is whole,’ says wife Cherelle Griner

President Joe Biden tried to assure Whelan and his family on Friday that the U.S. has not forgotten about him. “This was not a choice about which American to bring home,” he said. 

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. We will never give up,” Biden said. He told Whelan’s family that his thoughts and prayers were with them, adding, “We’ll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release. I guarantee you.”

Read more: Biden says U.S. will keep pressing for Whelan’s release as Griner freed from Russian prison

Whelan told CNN he was aware that his case is more complicated. “They’ve put me at a level higher than what they did with Trevor [Reed] and Brittney,” he said. Whelan was referring to U.S. Marine Corps veteran Trevor Reed, who was released in another dramatic U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange earlier this year. 

“They’ve always considered me to be at a higher level than other criminals of my sort and for whatever reason, I’m treated differently than another individual here from a Western country that’s also on a charge of espionage,” Whelan said. “That raises a lot of concerns, because none of it is true. And they’re trying to get out of the United States what the United States may not be able to provide, but this is basically political extortion.”

As Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner — along with of U.S. officials, WNBA players and other members of the public — celebrated the WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist’s release, she also noted that the news is bittersweet as long as Whelan remains imprisoned. 

“Today my family is whole. But as you all are aware, there’s so many families that are not whole,” Cherelle Griner said at the White House on Friday. She vowed that she and her wife, “BG,” will remain committed to getting Whelan home. 

Fox News reporter Nick Kalman tweeted out a statement from Whelan’s family that also expressed joy at Griner’s release: “There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed & for them to go home. The Biden Admin made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, & to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also released a statement, saying: “While we celebrate Brittney’s release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly.  Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention. I wholeheartedly wish we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane with Brittney. Nevertheless, we will not relent in our efforts to bring Paul and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home to their loved ones where they belong.” 

According to the James Foley Foundation’s 2022 Bringing Americans Home report, the number of U.S. nationals being wrongfully detained has increased 175% over the past decade, with at least 65 Americans being held in prolonged unjust detentions (averaging four years) at the time of the report.

Whelan said he hopes that President Biden and his administration “would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point.”

He added, “My bags are packed. I’m ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me.” 


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