The family of Paul Whelan, an American detained in Russia, is concerned about how the prisoner swap that returned another American detainee home could affect the chances of his return.
Trevor Reed, a former Marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019, was returned to the United States on Wednesday in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence in Connecticut for conspiracy to smuggle drugs into the U.S.
David Whelan, Paul’s brother, told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday he felt “elation for the family because we’re always, I think any detainee or hostage family is happy when the detainee or hostages leave,” though he added that the moment is “bittersweet” with “a little bit of frustration, because it's not really clear how this will impact Paul long-term.”
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Paul Whelan’s attorney, back in January 2020, surmised that Russia would push for an exchange involving Yaroshenko, who was given a 20-year sentence in 2011 after he was extradited to the U.S. from Liberia.
“Yaroshenko was someone who the Russians had been asking for in relation to Paul’s case from as far as we know, the very first day that Paul was arrested before anybody knew he had been arrested," David Whelan added. "And so that's a concession that the U.S. government has now made, but that concession hasn't resulted in Paul’s freedom. So there are now fewer choices, fewer concessions that the U.S. government might be able to make, and so it creates a little bit of concern about whether the opportunities to release Paul have narrowed or become harder than it was before."
Paul Whelan, who, like Reed, is a former Marine, was arrested in his room at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018, and was charged with espionage. Russian authorities say they caught him with classified information, though he and U.S. officials have said the charges were false. He was sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison.
Reed was arrested and charged with beating a police officer following a night of heavy drinking in the summer of 2019 in Russia, and he was sentenced to nine years in prison though he maintains his innocence.
President Joe Biden called the exchange a "difficult" decision to make in a statement, though he celebrated Reed's return.
"The negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly," the president said. "His safe return is a testament to the priority my administration places on bringing home Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad. We won’t stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends."
When asked if Reed’s release brought any “comfort” to him knowing that the U.S. was actively working to secure the releases of Americans detained in Russia, David Whelan said he doesn’t “take any comfort from that at all,” adding that his thoughts on the negotiations had changed.
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“In fact, the more I think about it, I think of each detainee in any country being on a separate train track. Before, I think, I've thought of them all — well, you know, all the ones in Russia would be dealt the same,” Whelan said. “Now I think they’re all individual trains on individual tracks, and some of those trains will get to their destination, and there'll be relief. And some of those trains won't, and it doesn't matter if someone in the same country as your loved one gets free.“
WNBA star Brittney Griner, an American, was arrested on charges of drug possession in Russia and is being detained as well.
A State Department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner that "Ambassador Sullivan was last able to visit Paul in person at the end of November 2021" and that "consular access was granted, and a consular officer visited Brittney Griner on March 23, 2022."
"We continue to insist that they allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia. We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team," the spokesperson added. "You've heard us say this many times — we have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens."