Former US marine imprisoned in Russia makes contact with family

Paul Whelan’s brother has confirmed the American, convicted on espionage charges, gave ‘proof of life’ in phone call.

Paul Whelan looks through a glass cage in a Russian court room
Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive and former US marine, is the subject of reported negotiations between the US and Russia over a prisoner exchange [File: Pavel Golovkin/AP]

The family of Paul Whelan, a US man imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, has confirmed that he has resumed contact with them after more than a week of silence that caused alarm at the White House.

Whelan’s brother David said in a statement that the former marine called his family on Friday for the first time since November 23.

“So the call at least acts as a ‘proof of life’, even if nothing else has been explained: when Paul went there, why, why the calls stopped, why the US Embassy had to seek information about his whereabouts and the Russian authorities refused to respond, etc,” David Whelan said.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby echoed the news on Friday, saying United States consulate personnel had likewise regained contact with Paul Whelan.

“I won’t get into … any specifics of his health for privacy reasons, but I can tell you that he conveyed to consular officers that he was feeling well,” Kirby said.

On Wednesday, Kirby had said President Joe Biden’s administration was “deeply concerned” about Whelan’s silence.

Whelan is one of several US residents held by Russia. They also include US basketball star Brittney Griner.

Whelan’s family had been told that he had been moved to a prison hospital, but the circumstances were unclear. Whelan had not previously indicated that he was experiencing health problems.

In his statement on Friday, Kirby said US consular officers indicated that Whelan had been returned from the hospital to the prison colony in the Mordovia region, where he is serving a 16-year sentence.

Whelan is a former US marine who worked as a corporate security executive. According to his lawyer, Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 after being handed a flash drive containing classified materials that he did not know about.

Whelan was convicted on espionage charges in 2020. His family maintains that he is innocent.

The US has pushed for a prisoner swap that would bring home Whelan and Griner, who is serving a nine-year sentence for drug possession after authorities found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport. Griner was moved to a penal colony in November.

The US has reportedly offered to release Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, currently serving a 25-year sentence in the US, in exchange for Griner and Whelan.

There is a precedent for such a swap: In April, Russia exchanged former US marine Trevor Reed for Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the US on drug charges.

On Tuesday, reporters asked Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Ryabkov whether a swap was possible before the end of the year.

“There always is a chance,” he said. “Regrettably, there have been a few occasions when it seemed that a decision in favour of it was about to be made, but it never happened.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies