David Whelan lives in Ontario, Canada.
My brother, Paul Whelan, entered Russia as a tourist and is now locked in a Moscow jail cell, charged with an unsubstantiated crime. The U.S. government must pressure Russia for his immediate release. No American should fear going abroad. Travel should not require risking personal freedom due to a government’s capriciousness.
For three days in late December, our family didn’t know where Paul was. We discovered his imprisonment the way everyone else did: on the Internet. Paul was arrested on charges of spying.
Paul is a kind and considerate brother, son and uncle, and a generous and loyal friend. He travels as often as he can, both for work and pleasure. He is many things to many people, but he is not a spy.
Paul has always been a patriot. He was a Boy Scout and later a Police Explorer at our local sheriff’s office. He served two tours in Iraq as a U.S. Marine. Before and after his military service, Paul was in law enforcement. Paul also served as a corporate security specialist for two respected U.S. companies. None of these activities ever involved espionage. Paul has always been committed to protecting others.
Since learning of his arrest, we have worked with State Department representatives in Moscow to obtain any details we could about Paul’s condition and the allegations against him. The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, and his staff saw Paul on Wednesday and, much to our relief, reported that he was alive and unhurt. We appreciate Huntsman’s commitment to maintaining regular contact with Paul during his detention and his assurances that Paul’s rights will be respected. Ongoing visits from U.S. Embassy officials are the only way to assure Paul’s safety and protect his basic human rights.
We were heartened by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s willingness to demand my brother’s immediate return. He would not have been in Moscow over the Christmas holidays — away from his parents and beloved dog — but for a request from a fellow retired Marine. Paul’s trip to support that friend by celebrating his wedding in Moscow shouldn’t be punished by arbitrary actions outside the rule of law.
There has been much speculation about why Paul has been victimized by the Russian government. His history has been thoroughly and publicly scoured for clues — some of which came as news to his family. We were surprised to learn that he left the Marines with a bad-conduct discharge. But we all have things in our lives that we may not share if they cast us in a bad light.
Other revelations reflected what we already knew: He is a confident, experienced traveler, fond of his Russian friends and the time he has spent in that country. His use of the Russian site VKontakte is no more unusual than Facebook is for Americans. As for his international connections, our family spans continents, and Paul’s four passports reflect his birth (Canada), parents (Britain), grandparents (Ireland) and choice (United States).
Furthermore, Paul has a risk-aware professional background, spanning law enforcement, military service and corporate security — factors that should make him an unlikely target of the Russian government.
Now begins the work to bring Paul back to his family.
Our first step has been to help Paul meet his needs as a prisoner of the Russian government. Detainees must pay for toilet paper and basic necessities. Paul couldn’t get his eyeglasses back because he didn’t know the words in Russian. He now has access to a translator and has a local lawyer to defend against the Russian government’s allegations.
But our family knows we need the president and Congress to be successful in freeing my brother.
We are contacting our representatives in Congress to urge them to use diplomacy, sanctions and other pressures to gain Paul’s release — such as a joint resolution demanding his freedom. Congress took similar action in 1986 when the Soviet Union detained American journalist Nicholas Daniloff on false espionage charges. Upon his return, Daniloff said he hoped “this outrageous incident would fade into history.” Unfortunately, history is repeating itself.
We urge all concerned Americans to contact their senators and representatives. Let them know that Paul’s plight is one you do not want to see repeated for any American. Ask them to help Paul get back to his family.
We urge President Trump to intercede on Paul’s behalf. U.S. government action will reinforce that Americans traveling abroad should not do so in fear, and ensure other American families are less likely to have their loved ones go missing. We are confident that if the president and Congress intervene decisively, as President Ronald Reagan and the government did for Daniloff, it will lead to Paul’s freedom.