The family of Paul Whelan, a businessman and former Marine imprisoned in Russia on suspicion of spying, said they were told by the Biden administration in advance that he would not be part of the prisoner swap Thursday that allowed the release of American basketball star Brittney Griner.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement that while he can “literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays,” the inability to also bring Whelan home remains difficult for the family to process.
Follow along for live coverage of Brittney Griner’s release.
“That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul,” David Whelan said.
Whelan has been jailed in Russia since December 2018 on charges of espionage, which he and the U.S. government has denied. During his arrest, he was working as the head of global security for an auto parts supplier in Michigan. Russia sentenced him in 2020 to 16 years in jail.
Paul Whelan told CNN in a phone call that he is “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred.”
David Whelan said gaining the release of Griner, who was detained in February at a Moscow airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, was the “right decision” rather than “waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
“It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom,” David Whelan said. “As I have often remarked, Brittney’s and Paul’s cases were never really intertwined. It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other.”
A senior U.S. official told NBC News that the U.S. government had sought to have both Griner and Whelan released as part of a swap with the Kremlin, which wanted the return of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who has served 11 years of a 25-year sentence in the U.S. But the official said Russia has treated Whelan differently because he is an accused spy, and that the Kremlin ultimately gave the White House the choice of either Griner or no one after different options were proposed.
The official added that Whelan’s sister was informed on Wednesday about the process to release Griner, a player on the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, and that another senior U.S. official was able to speak with Whelan from prison Thursday and inform him about the outcome of the negotiations.
Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, also said that the deal was an exchange of “one to one,” and that choosing Griner, 32, appeared “more humane” because she is a woman and an Olympic champion, while Whelan was in the military and it is “easier for him to be in custody.”
Zherebenkov said negotiations remain underway for Whelan, and that he could be freed in an exchange with Russia in the next couple of months. It’s unclear what he is basing that on, and a senior U.S. official would only say Thursday that diplomatic channels remain open.
David Whelan downplayed Zherebenkov’s suggestion that his brother could be imminently freed, saying on MSNBC that he “would doubt that has any basis in fact” since his brother and the lawyer haven’t spoken since last year.
David Whelan said the U.S. government remains in an “awkward, tricky position” if Russia is only willing to release Paul Whelan for a Russian spy being held in America and, as U.S. officials have said, currently no such prisoners exist.
“I don’t think the U.S. has the tools it needs to get Paul home,” David Whelan said.
Amid questions as to why both Whelan and Griner could not be released together, President Joe Biden said at the White House that “we have not forgotten about Paul Whelan” and that negotiations would continue to set him free.
“I don’t want any American to sit wrongfully detained for one extra day if we can bring that person home,” Biden said.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, also said from the White House that they would keep fighting for other detainees, “including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”
The Whelan family was similarly frustrated in April, when another former Marine held in Russia, Trevor Reed, was released in a prisoner exchange. David Whelan said that at the time, they were not warned that his brother was not included in the swap.
While the release of Reed, who was sentenced to nine years in prison after Russian authorities said he assaulted an officer amid a night of heavy drinking, was seen as a diplomatic victory for the U.S., the Biden administration maintained that Whelan was a high priority. (Reed’s family maintained his innocence.)
The Bring Our Families Home Campaign, an organization that advocates on behalf of Americans who are being wrongfully detained overseas, celebrated Griner’s homecoming, but stressed that Whelan’s case remains urgent.
“Paul Whelan has been let down and left behind at least three times by 2 Presidents,” the group said in a statement. “He deserves better from his government, and our Campaign implores President Biden to urgently secure Paul’s immediate return using all tools available.”
David Whelan on Thursday called on the U.S. government to “be more assertive” by ensuring a “swifter, more direct response” when an innocent American is arrested by Russia.
“How do you continue to survive, day after day, when you know that your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison?” David Whelan said.
David Whelan added that his parents are in their 80s, and it will be another Christmas without their son since he was detained four years ago. He said on MSNBC that his parents were able to speak with his brother on Thursday and that his brother remains “disappointed.”
“Today, I don’t really have any hopes,” David Whelan said. “I will focus on the work and do what I can to support Paul.”