Michigan's Whelan urges Biden to secure his release in Putin summit

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan's Paul Whelan is imploring President Joe Biden to secure his release when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, urging Biden to "bring this appalling case of hostage diplomacy to an end."

The Novi man's remarks came in an audio recording released Monday by his family and recorded during a May 30 phone call with his parents in Michigan from his labor camp in Mordovia. 

More stories:

Whelan family gains hope about Biden's tone on Russia

A cold war: Inside Paul Whelan's fight for freedom

Whelan, 51, has been in custody in Russia for 30 months since his arrest in December 2018 and later conviction on espionage charges that he's vehemently denied. 

"I remain innocent. No crime of espionage occurred. The secret trial, without evidence, proves those facts. The abduction of an American tourist cannot stand. Congress, American citizens and supporters throughout the world echo my call for immediate, decisive action," Whelan says in the recording.

"Please bring me home to my family, and my dog, Flora, where I belong. Thank you, Mr. President, for your commitment to returning me home and bringing this deplorable hostage situation to an expedient conclusion."

The White House has indicated that humanitarian concerns will be raised as part of the agenda at the Biden-Putin summit, which is set for Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said over the weekend that human rights abuses and the jailing of Americans "will all be part of the discussion."

"The president is not going to hold back in raising issues where he has concern, and he'll be straightforward and direct with President Putin," Psaki said on CNN. "That's the benefit of meeting in person. That's different than a phone call."

The Whelan family is hopeful that the summit and subsequent dialogue could lay the groundwork for Whelan's release as he approaches 900 days in custody, said Whelan's brother, David. 

"(We) are hopeful that directly or indirectly, his case will be touched on during the meetings. But the summit itself is the most important outcome, which would not have happened without President Biden making the offer to President Putin to meet," David Whelan said.

"Even if Paul isn't discussed, we know that he is top of mind for the State Department and that the U.S. government will raise the ongoing injustice with the Russian government."

In the recording, Paul Whelan also said he's been detained twice as long as American citizens who were held hostage in Tehran, referring to those held by Iran for 444 days from 1979-81.

The former security executive from Novi was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and convicted about a year ago after a secret trial. He was sentenced to 16 years in a maximum-security prison colony.His family has said he was in Russia to attend a friend's wedding.

The State Department has called Whelan's closed trial a "mockery of justice," noting Russian prosecutors produced no evidence, and Whelan was not able to produce witnesses in his defense. Michigan lawmakers in Congress have called on Russia to produce "credible" evidence against Whelan or to release him. 

Paul Whelan of Novi has been imprisoned since his arrest for  alleged spying in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018.

Whelan's health in detention has been a serious concern for his family after he last year had emergency hernia surgery. He has told his parents that the guards at his prison camp wake him at night every two hours, and the workshop where he and other prisoners make clothes six days a week is kept at about 40 degrees.

The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Texas U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, said Monday that Biden should insist on the release of both Whelan and another American prisoner, Trevor Reed, as a "pre-condition" of his meeting with Putin.

"These two Americans deserve to come home to their families," McCaul said.

It has been reported that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Biden and Putin might discuss Russian and American prisoners during the summit.

But it's hard to say what Putin thinks about Whelan's imprisonment, David Whelan said, noting Putin has spoken of being open to reciprocal exchanges of cybercriminals held by the U.S and Russian Federation. Putin told NBC News in a Friday interview ahead of the summit that he's open to a prisoner swap. 

"At the same time, his Ministry of Foreign Affairs says Paul would not be able to be included in an exchange," David said.

"So while an exchange might be a path to freedom for Paul, it's not at all clear that it's a realistic hope. At the end of the day, we will remain open to whatever route the U.S. government is able to persuade the Russian Federation to take."

Earlier this month, the prison camp's warden banned phone calls from Whelan to anyone other than his parents and consular staff, which he suspects to be retaliation for an interview that he gave to CNN that aired recently, David said.

His message in that interview was similar to Monday's recording, with Whelan calling for Biden to "aggressively discuss and resolve" the issue of U.S. citizens being detained for political purposes.

"This is not an issue of Russia against me; it's an issue of Russia against the United States, and the United States needs to answer this hostage diplomacy situation and resolve it as quickly as possible," Whelan told CNN.

Whelan also said he has "a positive feeling" about the forthcoming meeting between the U.S. and Russian leaders, describing it as "a good step in the right direction."

"I know that President Biden and Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken are working towards my release and return home," he said.

Blinken has raised the cases of Whelan and Reed multiple times with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, most recently in May, urging their release, according to the State Department. 

Reed's family said Monday on NBC's "Today Show" that they hope the summit leads to a prisoner swap. But Whelan's family has been more cautious on this front, saying it might not be the route the U.S. government wants to take. 

David Whelan cited concerns about creating a precedent for American tourists to be detained as potential "prisoner swap targets" in the future — and not just by Russia.

"We want Paul home using whatever method the U.S. government feels is most appropriate. Paul's freedom will almost certainly require that the Russian Federation government receive some concession — that's the whole point of his detention," David said. 

"But if that's the best way to get Paul back to Michigan, we wouldn't oppose it."

mburke@detroitnews.com