Officials tell family of Marine veteran imprisoned in Russia to 'make more noise' to help secure release
Daily Tribune May 19, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — What more will it take to bring Paul Whelan home?
The 52-year-old Michigander and U.S. Marine veteran has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 and was sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in a labor camp on charges of espionage. Russian prosecutors never presented any credible evidence to prove their claims that Whelan was a U.S. spy.
During a recent a phone call with Whelan's family, U.S. Department of State officials told them to "make more noise" or "be a squeakier wheel" in order to draw more attention to his case and help to secure his release. This phone call followed the release of Trevor Reed, a Texas resident and U.S. Marine veteran, who was freed from a Russian prison last month in exchange for a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving a 20-year prison sentence in America.
David Whelan, Paul's twin brother, says those comments are "hard to hear" and suggest that officials within the Biden administration, even after 41 months, must be persuaded that his brother's case deserves action.
Ever since Reed's release, Whelan's family, and Whelan himself, have been frustrated wondering what made his situation different and asking "what if" questions about what it could have taken for him to be included in that prisoner exchange.
"We know that President (Joe) Biden, Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken, National Security Advisor (Jake) Sullivan, and many others are aware of Paul's case," said David Whelan. "So additional notoriety isn't needed for its own sake. But apparently we need to do more because not everyone is onboard with securing Paul's release."
David Whelan said the family of a wrongful detainee shouldn't be bearing the burden of persuading U.S. government officials to act to secure the release of an American citizen.
"What sort of circus does a family need to put on to make more noise, to squeak louder, to move the immovable levers of government?" David Whelan said.
Despite the "make more noise" comment from federal officials, Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan's sister, spoke May 4 at a news conference alongside families of Americans currently being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas in Lafayette Park near the White House.
She has made nearly 20 trips to Capitol Hill advocating for her brother's release in hopes federal officials will hear her message and take action to support efforts around securing Paul's release.
On April 27, the U.S. House unanimously passed House Resolution 336, introduced by U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, calling for Whelan release. The bipartisan resolution has 21 Democratic cosponsors and 20 Republican cosponsors.
"Today, we stood together as a Congress to denounce Paul's wrongful imprisonment by Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin regime," said Stevens on April 27. "We must stand up and make it clear that American citizens will not be used as political pawns by Putin."
In July 2021, the U.S. Senate passed a similar resolution, Senate Resolution 165, which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters. Several other resolutions have passed through Congress calling on Whelan's reelase.
"When a resolution for Paul passes in Congress, we should take the time to appreciate how significant a show of support that is," said David Whelan following the passage of H.R. 336. "We hope that it gives Congress an opportunity to bolster the White House's own determination to seek Paul's unconditional release. Congress has sent a signal, again, to the Executive Branch as well as to the Kremlin, that Paul continues to suffer an injustice."
Adding to the family's frustration is the lack of communication with Whelan.
Up until about three weeks ago, his parents, who live in Michigan, had been able to speak with their son almost daily. It's not clear as to why the phone calls home have become so sporadic.
"Right now, Paul can only call the U.S. Embassy, when calls are approved, and the Embassy staff transfer the phone call to our parents," said David Whelan. "Sometimes that works, but it eats into the 15-minute time limit of the call as Paul is switched through. Other times, the call just doesn't happen."
Although the federal government has not been able to secure Whelan's release, David Whelan said his family appreciates the U.S. Embassy's efforts in making sure his brother has continued access to consular care, which includes payments being dispersed for food and medical care.
"We could never have done that ourselves," added Whelan.
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