Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Wednesday with Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen wrongfully detained in a Russian penal colony.
According to a source familiar with the call, Blinken told Whelan to “keep the faith and we’re doing everything we can to bring you home as soon as possible.”
A former U.S. Marine, Whelan was arrested in 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence on what the State Department says are fabricated charges of spying. His family says he was merely in Moscow for a friend’s wedding and was given a USB drive.
During a phone interview with CNN in May, Whelan said, “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.”
“Wrongfully detained” is a State Department designation that shifts supervision of that person’s 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 Biden Administration had hoped to broker Whelan’s release in December, along with that of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was wrongfully detained in a Russian penal colony when, this past August, she was convicted of possessing vape canisters that contained 0.702 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport. However, Russia refused to allow the release of both Americans in exchange for that of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Along with Whelan, the State Department is currently also attempting to negotiate the release of wrongfully detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in March after Russia’s FSB security services said the Wall Street Journal reporter “was collecting classified information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military industrial complex.” That’s despite the FSB acknowledging that Gershkovich is an accredited journalist in Russia.