For more than three years, as former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan toiled in a Russian prison labor camp, his family wondered what it would take to keep the public interested in his case.
Once in a while, media attention would sweep past like a searchlight: when he was arrested and charged with espionage in December 2018, when he went to trial 18 months later, when he was sentenced to 16 years, when the U.S. government said he had been wrongfully detained.
And then came the case of another American who had been arrested and detained in Russia in February, WNBA star Brittney Griner. Suddenly, Paul Whelan’s name was popping up everywhere.
“Brittney Griner’s supporters and advocates have been very vocal about calling for Paul’s release as well. That generosity, that grace, has meant more people have awareness about Paul’s case than have ever had it before,” says David Whelan, Paul’s twin brother. “It seems like there’s been very little overlap between those who knew Paul’s case before and those who know it now.”
Their names have become intertwined, with speculation that the U.S. government might negotiate a deal that brings them home together.
But David and his sister Elizabeth Whelan say they doubt that will happen, and they’re prepared for the possibility that Griner, who pleaded guilty Thursday, might come home before he does. They emphasize that until one of them is on a plane home, almost no one knows what’s really happening behind the scenes.
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s going to be Brittney and Paul for so-and-so.’ The chance that we’re getting it wrong is very high,” Elizabeth Whelan says.
They also say the 42 months since Paul Whelan was arrested have taught them an agonizing lesson in what a family can and can’t do to bring a loved one home.
“Until your loved one is home, you’re living this night and day,” Elizabeth Whelan says. “There is no escaping it. It’s extraordinary how a situation like this takes over a family’s entire life.”
She was in the news this week when she said she was angry that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris had called Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and responded to Brittney Griner’s letter with a letter of his own, saying it showed “favoritism.”
Speaking on Friday, she says her anger isn’t with the Griners or Biden; it’s with a system where everyone thinks the only way to get a loved one home is to get an audience with the President of the United States.
“It’s a ridiculous situation. It’s untenable. He can’t see 55 families,” she says. And even if he met all of them at once, she says, what happens when other Americans are detained?
Griner’s family and supporters have pushed publicly for a meeting with Biden, as did the parents of Trevor Reed, who was in a Russian prison for more than two years. Reed’s parents got that meeting in March, and five weeks later he was sent home in a prisoner swap.
“I know it sounds like sour grapes — it has nothing to do with the Reed and Griner families. I don’t begrudge any of their access whatsoever,” Elizabeth Whelan says. “I don’t feel like I’m being denied it, [but] I want for Paul what everyone gets.
“What annoyed the crap out of me is this whole idea that they protested, they got their meeting, and their loved one came home, as if there’s some sort of formula. There are people in every branch of every department and agency in the government trying to bring people home. A lot of that is done behind the scenes and not public.”
When Reed was released, several U.S. State Department sources went to lengths to point out that they brought him home so quickly because of an acute health crisis; his parents said he had untreated tuberculosis and had been badly injured in an accident. Officials insisted on background that the Reeds’ visit with Biden had nothing to do with his release. His supporters argue otherwise.
The push from some families to speak with the White House, and the White House’s decision to meet with the Reeds and call Cherelle Griner, puts the focus “on the wrong places,” Elizabeth Whelan says.
“The focus should be on the fact that Russia is taking Americans hostage,” she says. “There’s a tendency to shoot our ire towards the White House and the Congress, whoever we can aim our ire at, and not the Kremlin. After all, they’ve been the ones holding Paul for three and a half years.”
After her critical comments about the Biden phone call to Cherelle Griner, Elizabeth Whelan got a call from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Thursday. While she declined to share any details of their call, she said it put her at ease.
“He was basically giving reassurance that efforts on Paul’s behalf had in no way fallen to the wayside, regardless of the call and the President’s letter to Brittney,” she says. “But you could understand how a family would feel. And not just my family. What are the Venezuelan families going to think? The people held in China? I really think the President is a good man who’s trying to be helpful.”
But the Whelans also say they understand that families have a human instinct to do as much as they can, even pushing to meet the President, rather than wait patiently and trust government officials to care as much as they do.
“You see that some of them feel… they have to do something,” David Whelan says.
Elizabeth Whelan says Americans also tend not to understand how complicated these negotiations can be.
“In America we’re used to negotiations where each side has something they want and they find something halfway between those groups,” she says. “When someone is holding someone hostage, they’re doing it because they want something very unequal. They’re asking for someone who is a major criminal, or a policy or a repeal of sanctions that’s just beyond the pale.
“There are things going on behind the scenes that no one knows about and may never know about. This unfortunately has families feeling like they have to approach the President because we don’t know enough about what’s going on. In some cases we don’t need to know the details, but I think a line can be drawn [where officials] can share more.”
Despite her criticism, Elizabeth Whelan says she’s grateful for the attention the Griners have brought to the issue. The White House was asked about her case almost every day this week, and those questions drew a response that the administration is committed to getting all wrongful detainees home.
“It’s wonderful to see families take a very public stand and have the chutzpah to do things that raise awareness. It helps us all,” she says. “That helps people ask questions about all the other folks being held. We don’t ever think badly of what another family does; any attention to a loved one is helpful.”
Elizabeth Whelan says she has sent Cherelle Griner a couple of emails offering to support her however she can, and says the two spoke briefly at a James Foley Foundation event. David Whelan says that regardless of the families’ different approaches, the Whelans understand her agony.
“I think in a way her experience has been so much harder than other families’ — not to say that our loved ones haven’t suffered,” he says. “But she has to do it in a spotlight that none of us have endured in the same way.”
The Whelans say the increased attention to Paul’s case has been reassuring mostly because they don’t want him to be forgotten. But that swell of attention is not the same thing as progress, David Whelan says.
“I’m not sure what impact it’s had behind the scenes with the State Department staff and people like that,” he said.
Maybe the added attention helps, but David Whelan says he still doesn’t think a deal to bring them home together is likely.
“Ms. Griner’s case might help, but for the most part I think the solutions may be different,” he says. “Based on my reading of the Russia media, Paul’s espionage charge is considered much more serious than a drugs charge. Russians look for proportionality. They might be willing to release someone with a nine- or 10-year sentence [as Griner might face] than someone with a 16-year sentence.”
They also caution against what they see as a misconception that diplomats are dealing with one entity when they negotiate with Russia. On the U.S. side, there are the State Department’s Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has worked as a private citizens to negotiate the release of detained Americans. On the Russian side, you may be dealing with someone from the Kremlin or one of the ministries, a powerful oligarch, someone in the FSB or another agency. The Russians negotiating Griner’s return are likely not the ones negotiating Whelan’s return, the Whelans say.
It brings them both back to the sense of patience they say they need to survive Paul’s detention.
“I am prepared for Paul to be there for 16 years. I absolutely can see an event in which Paul would be left behind a second time. And maybe further,” David says. “That’s hard to accept and hard to explain to my parents.”
But if the light from Brittney Griner’s story comes and goes with her return and not Paul’s, there will be one consolation, he says: “At least there are more people now who are aware that Paul is there and will continue, I think, to advocate for his release.”