Paul Whelan, an American detained in Moscow on espionage charges, will spend Christmas in a Russian prison, but his family is preparing for his return nonetheless.
“Paul's presents will be under that Christmas tree,” David Whelan, 49, the imprisoned Michigan resident’s twin brother, told the Washington Examiner.
The hopeful gesture doesn’t obscure the family’s deepening fear that his captivity, which began on Dec. 28 last year, could continue for months or even years. Russian officials have extended Paul Whelan's pretrial detention repeatedly, through a series of judicial proceedings conducted in Russia, while restricting his ability to communicate with American officials and his family alike.
“It's hard to think of Paul being in a prison in this sort of situation, where there is clearly no evidence and he is being used for political purposes,” David Whelan said.
Paul Whelan was arrested while traveling in Moscow for a friend’s wedding. Investigators brandished a flash drive containing sensitive information as evidence against him, but his Russia-appointed attorney said that the device was planted by someone “connected to the military” whom Whelan regarded as a friend.
“It’s two days before Christmas,” Bart Gorman, the top U.S. diplomat in Russia, said Monday after visiting Whelan at Lefortovo Prison. “In the past 12 months, Paul has not heard his parents' voices. Bring Paul some Christmas cheer and let him call home.”
Russia’s goal remains a mystery, but Moscow has shown no sign of relenting. Paul Whelan told reporters who attended a recent court appearance that a Russian guard threatened him with a gun. “I'm the victim of an assault by a prison agent,” he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he “had the chance to raise the issue of U.S. citizens like Paul Whelan who have been detained in Russia” during Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent visit to Washington, but the Russian envoy responded by attacking Whelan.
“He’s threatening the penitentiary officers, and he makes all kinds of arrogant accusations,” Lavrov told reporters at the State Department. "If these tactics of the lawyers are aimed at — to create an image of a martyr, maybe that is not a correct one, not a correct approach and not an honest one.”
David Whelan said that he was “irritated” by Pompeo’s failure to defend his brother publicly from those allegations, a display that compounded his sense that State Department officials aren’t doing enough to free his brother.
“It was really hard to see Sergey Lavrov standing literally right next to Mike Pompeo and to have so much false information coming out of Foreign Minister Lavrov and for Secretary Pompeo not to counteract it to advocate for Paul,” Whelan told the Washington Examiner. “To have the American government so silent about their own citizen in an American meeting, it was really — it was very disappointing.”
Pompeo has made the release of American hostages a priority during his tenure as secretary of state, but Whelan’s family fears that this Christmas might only be the first of many that he spends locked up in Moscow. And however long that is true, his siblings will continue to lobby for his release, and they will continue to put Christmas gifts for him under the tree at his parents’ house.
“They will probably accumulate year to year as he spends each year in Russia, because we will continue to hope that he comes home,” David Whelan said. “And so, you prepare and you plan and you get presents or whatever on the assumption that your family member will be coming home. But, you really don’t have any idea when that will be, and that’s hard.”