The family of Paul Whelan, a businessman and former Marine imprisoned in Russia on suspicion of spying, said they were told by the Biden administration in advance that he would not be part of the prisoner swap Thursday that allowed the release of American basketball star Brittney Griner.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement that while he can “literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays,” the inability to also bring Whelan home remains difficult for the family to process.
“That 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,” David Whelan said. “I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media.”
Whelan has been jailed in Russia since December 2018 on charges of espionage, which he and the U.S. government has denied. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail. During his arrest, he was working as the head of global security for an auto parts supplier in Michigan.
David Whelan said gaining the release of Griner, who was detained in February at a Moscow airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, was the “right decision” rather than “waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
“It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom,” David Whelan said. “As I have often remarked, Brittney’s and Paul’s cases were never really intertwined. It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other.”
A senior U.S. official told NBC News that the U.S. government had sought to have both Griner and Whelan released as part of a swap with the Kremlin, which wanted the return of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who has served 11 years of a 25-year sentence in the U.S. But the official said Russia has treated Whelan differently because he is an accused spy, and that the Kremlin gave the White House the choice of either Griner or Whelan — or none.
Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, also said Thursday that the deal was an exchange of “one to one,” and that choosing Griner appeared “more humane” because she is a woman and an Olympic champion, while Whelan was in the military and it is “easier for him to be in custody.”
Zherebenkov said negotiations remain underway for Whelan, and that he could be freed in an exchange with Russia in the next couple of months. It’s unclear what he is basing that on, and the White House did not immediately comment on whether that would happen.
Amid questions as to why both Whelan and Griner could not be released together, President Joe Biden said at the White House on Thursday that “we have not forgotten about Paul Whelan” and that negotiations would continue to set him free.
“I don’t want any American to sit wrongfully detained for one extra day if we can bring that person home,” Biden said.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, also said from the White House that they would keep fighting for other detainees, “including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”
The Whelan family was similarly frustrated in April, when another former Marine held in Russia, Trevor Reed, was released in a prisoner exchange. David Whelan said that at the time, they were not warned that his brother was not included in the swap.
While the release of Reed, who was sentenced to nine years in prison after Russian authorities said he assaulted an officer amid a night of heavy drinking, was seen as a diplomatic victory for the U.S., the Biden administration maintained that Whelan was a high priority. (Reed’s family maintained his innocence.)
The Bring Our Families Home Campaign, an organization that advocates on behalf of Americans who are being wrongfully detained overseas, said while Griner’s homecoming is warranted, Whelan’s case remains urgent.
“Paul Whelan has been let down and left behind at least three times by 2 Presidents,” the group said in a statement. “He deserves better from his government, and our Campaign implores President Biden to urgently secure Paul’s immediate return using all tools available.”
David Whelan on Thursday called on the U.S. government to “be more assertive” by ensuring a “swifter, more direct response” when an innocent American is arrested by Russia.
“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?” David Whelan said.
David Whelan added that his parents are in their 80s, and it will be another Christmas without their son since he was detained four years ago.
“Time is Paul’s, and our, enemy,” David Whelan said.
“I worry that Paul himself won’t survive 12 more years in a Russian labor colony,” he added. “He has tried to stay healthy but one wonders how long that determination to keep going can endure.”
Andrea Mitchell and Chelsea Damberg contributed.