American imprisoned in Russia Paul Whelan said Sunday he’s “positive and confident” that “wheels are turning” in favor of his release.
A former U.S. Marine, Whelan was arrested in 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian penal colony on what his family says are fabricated charges of spying.
“I remain positive and confident on a daily basis that the wheels are turning. I just wish they would turn a little bit more quickly,” Whelan said in a telephone interview with CNN from his prison camp in Mordovia.
He did concede during the interview that he fears being left behind again—as he was after WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed in a prisoner swap in December. At the time, the Kremlin refused to include Whelan when it traded Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Now, negotiations are ongoing with Russia for not just Whelan but also for Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested on March 29 and charged by the Kremlin with espionage.
In April, the State Department designated Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained,” which shifted his case to a specialized State Department section, called the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. That department is focused on negotiating for the release of captives.
The State Department declared Whelan wrongfully detained after his arrest in 2018.
“I have been told that I won’t be left behind, and I have been told that although Evan’s case is a priority, mine is also a priority, and people are cognizant of the fact that this is having an extremely negative impact on me and my family,” Whelan told CNN. “And I’m told that the government is working tirelessly to get me out of here and to get me home so they can then focus effort on Evan and his case.”
Part of Whelan’s renewed confidence, he said, comes from the public messages he has been able to see from President Biden, as well as from his sister Elizabeth Whelan, who attended a United Nations Security Council meeting in April chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
He called “very, very encouraging” remarks Biden made at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, vowing to “never quit fighting” for Whelan “until we get him home.”
While Whelan told CNN that he knows “that there are negotiations underway,” he took the opportunity to urge Biden to continue efforts to get him released.
“Mr. President, I’ve been held hostage for more than 52 months, and the only crime I have committed in Russia is that of being an American citizen,” Whelan said. “Freedom is not free, it comes at a price. But the loss of freedom is even more costly, and I pay that cost every day Russia holds me. Please follow through with your promises and commitments, truly make my life a priority, and get me home. Thank you very much.”