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Who is Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine held in Russia?

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow, is shown in August 2019 waiting for a hearing to begin. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)
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The release of Brittney Griner, the American basketball star imprisoned in Russia who was exchanged Thursday for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, shed light on the case of another American prisoner, Paul Whelan.

U.S. officials say they are still working to secure the release of the former Marine, who was arrested in Moscow in 2018, but claim he was not part of the negotiations for Thursday’s prisoner swap because his case is being treated differently by the Russians.

Who is Paul Whelan?

Paul Whelan, 52, is a Marine turned corporate security executive who was convicted of espionage and is serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian prison.

A citizen of four countries — the United States, Canada, Britain and Ireland, Whelan was a former sheriff’s deputy and served several tours in Iraq as an active-duty reservist. He was discharged from the Marines for bad conduct in 2008 after being convicted of charges related to larceny, according to military and court records.

Whelan then spent over a decade working as a corporate security expert. At the time of his arrest, he was corporate security director at BorgWarner, a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier.

Why is Whelan in Russia?

In June 2020, Whelan was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor in a Russian prison for espionage, in a trial that he has argued was politically motivated and heightened tensions between the United States and Russia.

His attorney, Vladimir Zherebenkov, has said his client unwittingly received a flash drive containing “state secrets” while visiting Russia for a wedding in 2018. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Whelan was caught “red-handed,” during a spy mission.

Whelan, arrested Dec. 28, 2018, in a Moscow hotel, has said he thought the flash drive that he received from an acquaintance contained holiday photos. Whelan, his family and the U.S. government have repeatedly stated that the charges are baseless and that he was framed.

The day the verdict was announced, Whelan said he thought it was a foregone conclusion, and shouted from within a glass-enclosed area in the courtroom that Russia “feels impotent in the world, so they’re taking political hostages.”

How long has Paul Whelan been held in a Russian penal colony?

Whelan has been detained in Russia for nearly four years and in August 2020, he was sent to prison camp IK-17 in the Mordovia region of Russia, some 210 miles east of Moscow.

In an interview with ABC News in November 2020, Whelan described the place as “very, very old. It’s very grim. Quite dilapidated.” The former Marine said he was living in “quite crowded” spaces and estimated that his building housed 50 to 60 people. He described his fellow inmates as “quite welcoming.”

During his imprisonment, Whelan has been working in a clothing factory, which he called a “sweatshop” in a 2021 interview with CNN. His mornings begin at 6 a.m. and his routine is monotonous, but writing letters and reading books in English helped him get through it, he said. He also told CNN he had a recurring cough and noted that getting medical care was difficult — even prevented by guards — in the colony.

Since entering Russian custody, Whelan has faced changing conditions. Last year, he was sent to solitary confinement for a month. Concern for Whelan flared up again in November after he was not able to contact his family for more than a week and Russian authorities claimed he had been sent to a hospital.

He got in touch with his parents Dec. 2., in what Whelan’s brother described as a “proof of life” call, according to the Associated Press.

Why was he not released?

After news of Griner’s release Thursday, U.S. officials lamented not being able to secure Whelan’s release, but said they were continuing the efforts.

President Biden said Thursday that those efforts have failed so far because Russia has decided to treat Whelan’s case “differently” given the nature of the espionage charges levied against him. Biden called those espionage allegations “totally illegitimate charges.”

Biden said his administration has “not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” and promised to “keep negotiating in good faith for his release.”

“We will never give up,” he said.

Russia freed Brittney Griner in a high-profile prisoner exchange with the U.S. Here's what this means for the future of other American hostages. (Video: Rich Matthews/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, Whelan said Thursday that he is “greatly disappointed” that the government has not done more to secure his release, “especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he said in a phone interview with CNN from the remote Russian penal colony where he is being detained. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement that U.S. officials told them on Wednesday that Paul wouldn’t be part of the exchange that freed Griner and expressed pessimism about the chance of seeing his brother go free.

“It’s clear that the U.S. government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan. And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes,” he said while applauding Griner’s release.

Russian lawyers for Whelan also lamented that their client was not included in the swap. Over the summer, reports indicated that the U.S. government was trying to negotiate the release of both Griner and Whelan in exchange for Bout.

“There was a lot of speculation about this and there was hope [that] Paul and his family had hoped he would finally return home to his very elderly parents,” his lawyer Olga Karlova told The Post.

“We don’t know exactly why [he hasn’t been added], maybe because he is too valuable for the swap, and they’ve decided to hold him for longer,” she added.

A national security official said Thursday that Whelan was never really an option for the Russians during the negotiations about freeing Griner, and that due to the nature of the espionage charges against him, Russians rejected all the proposals U.S. officials presented them.

“This is not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice of bringing home one American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity on a call with reporters.

Officials have said the dialogue about Whelan’s release remains open.

This is the second time Whelan has been overlooked in a prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington. Earlier this year, American Trevor Reed, a former Marine who was detained in 2019, was exchanged for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to 20 years in a U.S. prison.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this report.

Brittney Griner released from Russian prison

The latest: WNBA star Brittney Griner landed in the United States around 5:30 a.m. ET Friday in San Antonio.

Prisoner trade deal: Her release was part of a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Nicknamed the “merchant of death,” Bout is a notorious arms dealer and has been in U.S. custody since his arrest in Thailand in 2008. It’s unclear why Moscow officials were so eager to bring him home.

Why was Griner detained?: Griner had been imprisoned in Russia since February, when she was accused of entering the country with vape cartridges that contained less than a gram of cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country.