Washington — Family members of Paul Whelan, the U.S. businessman serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia, said they are concerned that the White House and State Department are diverting resources away from his case and that he could be left behind again as the U.S. seeks the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, another American who has been wrongfully detained.
“His resilience is shaken,” Whelan’s brother, David, wrote in an email update on Monday. “Paul seems rattled like never before, understandably apprehensive that the U.S. government will choose not to bring him home again, now that there is another American wrongfully detained by the Kremlin.”
Whelan was sentenced to 16 years behind bars in 2020 after being arrested on espionage charges at a Moscow hotel in December 2018.
The U.S. has made two prisoner swaps for the release of professional basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Trevor Reed, who were both wrongfully detained in Russia after Whelan’s arrest. The Biden administration has blamed Russia for treating Whelan’s case differently.
“On Friday, Paul told our parents he feels as though the U.S. government has abandoned him,” David Whelan wrote.
The update comes as the Biden administration is under pressure to secure the release of Gershkovich, who is also accused of espionage. The State Department formally declared that the journalist was wrongfully detained within days of his arrest, while it took years for Whelan to receive the designation.
The handling of Griner and Gershkovich’s cases has also prompted criticism that detainees in prominent positions are given higher priority by the U.S. government. Ambassador Roger Carstens, the U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs, has denied that anyone receives preferential treatment.
“The White House and State Department have repeatedly said that Paul’s case is the highest priority,” David Whelan said. “But choices — to give concessions in one case and not in another — suggest that there is some prioritization going on. Some families get phone calls from the President. Some detainees are rapidly considered for wrongful detention.
“It is the U.S. government’s duty to bring Paul home,” he continued. “If the U.S. government is pulling its punches at the expense of some of its citizens, it should stop doing so.”
Underscoring their frustration with the U.S. government, David Whelan said their sister, Elizabeth, would be pausing her interactions with the State Department and the National Security Council “until they stop wasting her time and come up with something more than thoughts and prayers.”
In a video last week, Elizabeth Whelan said their family has been told over the years that “several offers” have been made for Whelan’s release.
“Perhaps the White House does know what it might take to the get the job done but they are reluctant to cross what they see as some red line,” she said.