Former Marine Paul Whelan remained in detention at a Russian penal colony while Americans celebrated the release of Brittney Griner, almost one year after the WNBA star was arrested at a Moscow-area airport on drug charges.
President Biden on Thursday confirmed the United States had agreed to trade notorious Russian Arms dealer Viktor Bout for the two-time Olympic gold medalist. The high-profile prisoner swap was met with praise from activists and basketball fans worldwide, but many were also left wondering: what about Whelan?
Whelan has been jailed in Russia since December 2018 on charges of espionage, which his family and the U.S. government have said are manufactured. He was arrested during a trip to Moscow for the wedding of a fellow former Marine, and then jailed in the notorious Lefortovo Prison.
In court, Whelan appealed to then-president Donald Trump, calling on him to "intervene" and "defend" him.
"Mr. President, we cannot keep America great unless we aggressively protect American citizens wherever they are in the world," Whelan said, calling himself a victim of "political kidnapping."
Whelan was ultimately sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail.
At the time of his arrest, Whelan worked as the head of global security for an auto parts supplier in Michigan but maintained a small presence in Russia. He also had a stint with the U.S. Marine Corps, which included a deployment to Iraq.
His twin brother, David, in a statement on Thursday said he was "so glad" for Griner's release but also disappointed for his own family.
"The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen," he said, emphasizing that he did not begrudge Griner her freedom.
The prisoner swap for Griner this week marked the second such exchange with Russia in the last eight months. In April, Trevor Reed - a former Marine sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2020 for endangering the "life and health" of Russian police officers in an altercation - was traded for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been serving a 20-year sentence in the U.S. for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine.
Whelan at the time lamented the fact that he remained trapped overseas despite serving more time in Russia than Reed.
"Why was I left behind? While I am pleased Trevor is home with his family, I have been held on a fictitious charge of espionage for 40 months," he said at the time. "The world knows this charge was fabricated. Why hasn't more been done to secure my release?"
With News Wire Services