Brother calls Paul Whelan’s detention “a catastrophe” after prisoner swap

The brother of 52-year-old U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan, who is still imprisoned in Russia, praised the Biden administration for its successful efforts to free Brittney Griner but called his brother’s continued detention “a catastrophe” in a statement issued after the WNBA star’s release on Thursday.

“I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,” David Whelan wrote. “As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays.”

Noting the prisoner exchange that took place in the United Arab Emirates to secure Griner’s release, which followed months of negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, he added: “The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

Griner, who was arrested in Moscow on drug charges last February and held in various Russian prisons during the months that followed, boarded a plane headed back to the U.S. early Thursday, President Joe Biden said in a tweet. Officials were able to negotiate the athlete’s freedom via a prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was previously in U.S. custody.

Paul Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia for the last four years, since his arrest and conviction on espionage charges that the U.S. has called false. He has remained in custody as other imprisoned Americans have secured their freedom, including Trevor Reed, who was released from Russia in April. The Whelan family was not notified in advance when that happened, according to David Whelan, who said on Thursday that the government “this time” told them beforehand that “Paul would be left behind” as Griner returned home.

David Whelan said the “early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul.”

Although he did not know whether his brother had already been made aware of the deal between the U.S. and Russia that led to Griner’s release, David Whelan suggested that “he will surely learn from Russian media” or their parents, who he said have spoken with Paul daily since Dec. 2.

“It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom,” David Whelan wrote. However, he also called on the U.S. to be more assertive in its efforts to secure his brother’s release, and proposed that authorities implement “a swifter, more direct response” to imprisoned Americans. “In Russia’s case, this may mean taking more law-breaking, Kremlin-connected Russians into custody.”

Although President Biden insisted in public remarks on Thursday that “we’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” David Whelan said he worries about how his brother will react to the news of Griner’s freedom but not his own.

“How do you continue to survive, day after day, when you know that your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison?” he wrote. “I can’t imagine he retains any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point.  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.”