Family of American Jailed in Russia Vows to Keep Fighting

Long sentence for alleged espionage is a “gut punch” but opens door to negotiations.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan awaits a hearing in a Moscow court.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, holds a message as he stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Moscow on Oct. 24, 2019. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

For the past 18 months, David Whelan and his family have been waging a battle to free his brother, Paul Whelan, from a Russian prison on what the U.S. government has characterized as falsified and trumped-up charges of espionage.

On Monday, a Moscow court sentenced Paul to 16 years in prison following a closed-door trial shrouded in secrecy by Russian authorities.

Whelan’s family sees the ruling not as an end to the battle, but rather the beginning of a new chapter in the push to secure his freedom, as they believe the Trump administration will now get involved in negotiations with Russia to secure his release. “We won’t quit fighting until he’s home,” David Whelan told Foreign Policy in an interview.  

The Russian government has long fended off attempts by the U.S. government to negotiate Whelan’s release from prison until after his trial and sentencing. But Russian officials have proposed negotiating Whelan’s release through a prisoner swap, prompting former U.S. officials to theorize he is a pawn in a larger political game for Moscow to gain diplomatic leverage over Washington. Whelan himself believed he was detained in retaliation for U.S. sanctions on Russia, according to letters he sent to his family from prison through his legal team that were shared with Foreign Policy. 

He has consistently maintained his innocence since his arrest. “This is slimy, greasy, grubby Russian politics. Nothing more. Nothing less,” Whelan reportedly said before his sentencing on Monday.

His brother called the ruling a “gut punch,” but he said it removed the final major obstacle to U.S. and Russian diplomatic talks on Whelan’s case. “We are expecting that the U.S. government will now engage with the Russian Federation, who will hopefully no longer put off discussions about how to facilitate Paul’s release,” he said. 

Whelan’s case has heightened already strained relations between the United States and Russia in recent years following Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea and subsequent war in Ukraine, as well as its interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was “outraged” by Whelan’s sentencing in a statement on Monday, calling his treatment by Russian authorities “appalling.” 

It also sheds light on the difficulties Americans detained abroad face, often leaving their family at home scrambling to organize a campaign to secure their release in coordination with the State Department and members of Congress. Whelan’s family has been forced to navigate the confusing power corridors of Washington as well as the arcane bureaucracy of Russia’s notorious prison systems to raise awareness for his case and try to maintain lines of communications with him while he is in prison.

David Whelan praised the U.S. Embassy in Russia for its support, including prison visits from the U.S. ambassador and other officers. “It’s been meaningful to both us and Paul to know he has that sort of support,” he said.

The U.S. government has accused Russian authorities of violating international human rights by depriving Paul Whelan of due process, a fair trial, regular communications with his family and the outside world, and access to proper medical care; Whelan had a surgery for a hernia last month following months of ailing health. U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said Russian authorities blocked the embassy from sending masks and gloves to Whelan in prison to protect himself against the spread of coronavirus. 

Sullivan on Monday called Whelan’s case and sentencing a “mockery of justice.”

Whelan, a 50-year-old former U.S. Marine from Michigan, also holds British, Canadian, and Irish citizenship. After his arrest in December 2018, his lawyers argued he was unfairly detained as part of a sting operation by Russian security services. While visiting Russia for a friend’s wedding, Whelan was handed a USB flash drive from a Russian acquaintance that was supposed to contain travel photos, his lawyers said. When Russian authorities arrested him, they said the flash drive contained classified information. 

Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan’s lawyer, said Russian officials have already indicated they would be open to discussing a potential prisoner swap with two Russian detained in the United States: Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer convicted in 2011 of conspiring to sell weapons to Colombian drug cartels, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot arrested in 2010 on cocaine-smuggling charges. 

Russian officials have characterized both Bout’s and Yaroshenko’s arrests as politically motivated. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed allegations that Whelan’s arrest involved political meddling.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the next steps in pushing for Whelan’s release.

In the meantime, David Whelan urged his brother to “stay strong.”

“We are not yet in the home stretch, and we may not know we are there until he is on a plane coming home,” he told Foreign Policy. “We must all just continue to fight and do what we can to survive this ordeal.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer