© 2022 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Trevor Reed came back home, but Paul Whelan is still imprisoned in Russia

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Trevor Reed, a U.S. citizen and former Marine who'd been imprisoned in Russia for 985 days, is back in the United States today. Russia released Reed in exchange for a pilot who was serving time in the U.S. on drug smuggling charges. We want to turn to a man who was left behind, another U.S. citizen and former Marine, Paul Whelan, who's serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor in Russia. Whelan was detained in a Moscow hotel in 2018 and was accused of spying. We're joined by Paul's twin brother, David. David, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DAVID WHELAN: Thanks so much for having me.

SCHMITZ: First of all, David, how are you, and how is your family?

WHELAN: Well, yesterday was a bittersweet day. It was a very hard day. And today we're sort of back to work. You deal with the events that take place, and then you move on. I think it was hard for my parents to learn that Paul wasn't going to be coming home and then having to perhaps not break the news to him but have to be the ones who get the message, which is, why was I left behind?

SCHMITZ: And so you mentioned that you were in touch with your brother. How is he doing?

WHELAN: He is probably as well as you could be in a Russian labor camp. They don't provide nutritional meals, and they don't really take too much care of the prisoners. There's a lot of corruption and other abuse. So I think he does his best to stay out of people's way. And before the sanctions hit, we were able to get money into his prison account and on his phone card. So hopefully for the near future, he'll be able to be all right.

SCHMITZ: What do you mean by that? What - can you explain what this card is and how that works?

WHELAN: Prisoners in Russian prisons have, like, a prison bank account where family can deposit money so that the prisoner can buy things from the prison commissary. We have a process of transferring money to the State Department. The State Department transfers it so that it's available to the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and then Moscow disperses money as needed into those two accounts. And so it's a thin pipeline that allows us to support Paul. And if anything disrupts that, if the staff in Moscow leave, if sanctions stop us from making those sorts of transfers, it makes it much more difficult.

SCHMITZ: Yesterday NPR spoke with State Department spokesman Ned Price. He did not offer a lot of information about your brother's case. Have they been more open or provided more details to you and your family?

WHELAN: No. And I think that that is not too much of a surprise to us. I think the communication that we've had from the Biden administration, certainly in the last 15 months, has been substantially more than we had in the first two years of Paul's detention. But the - it happens sporadically. And it happens mostly at the lower level, the care and feeding end of the spectrum - so weekly calls with the U.S. embassy staff in Moscow, regular interactions with the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Office.

SCHMITZ: Right.

WHELAN: But less so at the top and less so to know about what sort of decisions are being taken or discounted, what options are available or which ones aren't.

SCHMITZ: For those listeners who don't know, can you remind us about the circumstances of Paul's detention in 2018? Why was he in Russia, and what happened?

WHELAN: Yeah, it's a bit tragic. He had volunteered to go with a fellow Marine to help the Marine who was having a wedding in Moscow. He was going to the wedding, and then he was going on to St. Petersburg to see some other friends. And then he was coming home. And the night of the wedding, before the wedding even started, he was entrapped by the security services, by a friend who he had had in Russia.

SCHMITZ: Wow.

WHELAN: And he disappeared. And that's when we first learned about it.

SCHMITZ: Wow. I mean, that just sounds so traumatic for you and your family. I mean, how has his time in prison since 2018, you know, affected your family financially?

WHELAN: Well, unfortunately, every family has to look at its resources right from the very start. And the first thing we realized that - we might not be able to trust the government lawyers that had been given to Paul. He was assigned a Russian-speaking lawyer only on the first day - so obviously not a lot of thought put into what Paul's defense would be since Paul doesn't speak Russian. But we also very quickly came to the realization that we couldn't afford for a private Russian lawyer. In essence, we had to make decisions about whether, you know, our parents would be able to retire or take their money out of their retirement to pay for these sorts of things. And we have decided to try and be a little bit thrifty in that.

SCHMITZ: Right. You know, you and your family have been fighting this fight for a few years now. How has the war and Russia's war in Ukraine impacted your efforts to try and get your brother released?

WHELAN: It hasn't really impacted too many efforts. The U.S. and Russian relationship is in a terrible state, but it is still in a state. And I think Trevor Reed's release shows that there is something actually going on there. But the war itself - Paul is in a labor camp, and it's become a little bit more difficult. There are fewer options, for example, to use things like Western Union, who have pulled out of Russia. But we - the care and feeding flow seems to be continuing so long as that relationship still exists.

SCHMITZ: Right. So you've noted that Russia has long wanted the release of Konstantin Yaroshenko, the Russian prisoner traded for Reed. Do you know of any other Russian prisoners in U.S. custody who could be traded for your brother?

WHELAN: Oh, absolutely. Paul has made it clear - that very first weekend before he was given consular access, right after he was given an FSB-appointed lawyer, he was told that he was being arrested in order to be exchanged for Mr. Viktor Bout, the Merchant of Death, and for Mr. Yaroshenko. And so it really has been the entirety of the time that he has been detained that those two names have come up repetitively from the Russian side in Russian media, from Russian government officials that those were two people they wanted returned. And then there's been a slightly changing cast of characters. At one point it was also Roman Seleznev, who is the son of a Duma legislator. So there are other people, but it's usually been those two.

SCHMITZ: So Paul was actually told this by an FSB lawyer upon his arrest that, look; we're basically arresting you because we want some Russian prisoners released from the U.S.

WHELAN: Absolutely. That's what he has relayed to us. And based on the fact that they charged him with espionage, which was probably the most ludicrous thing they could have charged him with, and the whole mockery of justice that has gone on since then, I don't think there's any reason to doubt.

SCHMITZ: What's next for you and your family in your fight to get Paul home?

WHELAN: Well, I guess we continue to do what we've done day to day. In the same way that Paul, in order to survive over there, is going to have to look at one day at a time, I think that our family has to do the same. And hopefully those days don't accumulate too far. And I think that that's sort of where we are questioning a lot after Trevor's release yesterday, which I'm so thrilled for. But it really puts into perspective, are there limitations to what the U.S. government can or is willing to do? What are those difficult decisions against which President Biden came up against? It's given us a lot of things that we need to be considering.

SCHMITZ: That's David Whelan, the twin brother of Paul Whelan, who is imprisoned in Russia. David, thank you so much, and good luck to you and your family.

WHELAN: Thanks. It's been nice to be on.

(SOUNDBITE OF UYAMA HIROTO'S "YIN AND YANG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.