Paul Whelan has asked the US not to leave him behind again
Getting excluded from prisoner exchanges with Moscow twice has been a “death warrant,” Paul Whelan told CNN, in a telephone interview from the Russian penal colony where he is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage.
The outlet published the interview on Tuesday, but said that Whelan phoned them on Friday from the “remote prison camp” in Mordovia, a Russian republic roughly halfway between Moscow and Samara. It was Whelan’s fourth exclusive call with the outlet since he was sentenced in 2020.
Whelan said he was confident the State Department was working on his release, but was frustrated at the slow pace and wanted to make sure he didn’t get forgotten due to “other geopolitical issues.”
He also advised Americans not to travel to Russia “if they value their freedom.”
Whelan was arrested in December 2018, after accepting a flash drive with classified documents from an undercover officer of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The American, Irish, Canadian and British national was found guilty by a Moscow court and sentenced to 16 years in a prison colony. The US has designated him as “wrongfully detained,” suggesting the charges against him were politically driven.
Speaking with CNN, Whelan recalled the phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in August, when he “told him point blank that leaving me here the first time painted a target on my back and leaving me here the second time basically signed a death warrant.”
Moscow and Washington exchanged convicted drug smuggler and basketball star Brittney Griner for Russian businessman Viktor Bout last December. Another swap in April saw ex-Marine Trevor Reed set free in exchange for pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
When asked about leaving Whelan behind in the Griner swap, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that there wasn’t an option, and that Griner was an “important role model, an inspiration to millions of Americans, particularly the LGBTQI+ Americans and women of color.”
In March, when Blinken claimed he had raised the issue of Whelan with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused him of lying.
Whelan told CNN that it was “a mistake” for President Joe Biden to exchange Bout and Yaroshenko while leaving him behind, and that Russia wants “something high value in return” for him. Russia has accused the US of “hunting” for Russians they could offer up for an exchange.
“I think everyone’s trying to do the right thing, and I know that this will come to an end at some point. How long it will take I don’t know. But I’m being promised that I won’t be left behind here,” Whelan said.