Whelan asks after US-Russia prisoner swap why he was 'left behind'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan’s Paul Whelan asked Wednesday why he was “left behind” in Russia after the U.S. government negotiated a prisoner swap for another American, Trevor Reed. 

“Why was I left behind? While I am pleased Trevor is home with his family, I have been held on a fictitious charge of espionage for 40 months,” Whelan said in a statement released Wednesday through his parents. “The world knows this charge was fabricated. Why hasn't more been done to secure my release?”

Earlier in the day, Whelan's family expressed happiness at Russia's release of Reed, another former Marine, while appearing frustrated that the U.S. left their brother and son out of the prisoner swap.

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

The development is not a good sign for Whelan, his brother, David, told The Detroit News. He now sees a narrower window for his brother's potential release after more than three years in Russian custody — which is longer than the over two and a half years Reed had been held.

"The Russian and U.S. governments negotiated a trade, and that trade did not include Paul," David said. "There is no reason to think that a second trade or some other concession that would lead to Paul's release is pending. Unfortunately, one of the possible perspectives this morning is that we're starting over."

And time is not on the Whelans' side, with the brothers' parents in their 80s. "Our hope remains that Paul will be home so they may seem him once more. But each day that hope dims," David said in an earlier statement.

Which American hostages get saved "is the president's choice," he added. 

"President Trump wasn't able to make those difficult decisions. It may be President Biden is unwilling to make them either," David said. "We hope we don't have to pin our hopes on another American president before someone will do the right thing for Paul."

Paul Whelan, 52, is a former security executive from Novi. He has been in prison in Russia since his arrest at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and later conviction on espionage charges that he's vehemently denied.

Whelan is now serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor at a prison camp in Mordovia. U.S. officials have long labeled his detention "wrongful" and pressed for his release, as well as that of Reed. Both men are former Marines who traveled to Russia as tourists. 

Reed, detained in August 2019, was released in exchange for pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the U.S. on charges of cocaine trafficking, officials said.

A senior Biden administration official told reporters the negotiations on this issue had been "going on for a very long time" and resulted in President Joe Biden commuting Yaroshenko's sentence.

“We welcome this important release, while continuing to call for the release of wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday in a statement.

Biden in announcing Reed's release Wednesday said the negotiations required "difficult decisions that I do not take lightly."

"We won’t stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends," Biden said in a statement. 

David Whelan said Reed's release was "the event that we hope for so much in our own lives," and that the news sparked "varied" emotions and questions for his family.

"... If this case required 'difficult decisions that' the president doesn't take lightly, how difficult are the decisions he faces to release Paul? And if not now, when one deal has been struck with Russia, then when? How much harder will a second agreement be?" David said. 

"Is President Biden's failure to bring Paul home an admission that some cases are too hard to solve? Is the administration's piecemeal approach picking low-hanging fruit?  And how does a family know that their loved one's case is too difficult, a hostage too far out of reach?"

Asked about Whelan's statement Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted that Biden, State Department officials and negotiators "are going to continue to do everything they can" to bring Whelan home.

"We will continue to advocate for the immediate and unconditional release of Paul Whelan at every opportunity," Psaki said. "Using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working and living abroad." 

The Department of State did not answer questions Wednesday from a reporter about the status of any negotiations for Whelan's release, instead referring to Biden's statement.

David Whelan noted that Russia has long wanted the return of Yaroshenko, so that's one less concession that the U.S. can make for his brother's return. 

"This narrows the field of things the U.S. government can offer that would secure Paul's release," David said. "And that doesn't mean there aren't other ways to facilitate Paul's release, but my concern is that this makes it more difficult."

The Whelans' family attorney, Ryan Fayhee, said it was "very unfortunate" Paul wasn't included in the trade for Yaroshenko, saying Yaroshenko's crimes were "out of proportion" when compared with what Reed was accused of — a scuffle with a police officer.

"Yaroshenko was arrested and got a fair and open trial and was sentenced by an impartial judge. That’s not what Trevor Reed or Paul Whelan received," said Fayhee, who previously worked in the Justice Department's counter-espionage section. 

"I think Paul's been there long enough to be considered as part of this deal … and it deeply concerns the family as to what it’s going to take."

Fayhee called on Biden to meet with the Whelan family. Reed's parents got a private audience with Biden in the Oval Office in late March after staging a protest outside the White House. The Reeds called that meeting a "tipping point."

"The family hasn’t heard from the president yet. We know it’s the president’s decision. We’ve seen the impact of Mrs. Reed’s voice," Fayhee said.

"It’s past time the family and the president have some contact," he added. "We know he’s engaged, but he needs to hear from this family."

Democratic U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens of Waterford Township said she'd encourage such a meeting, saying the personal and "human" element of meeting the Whelans is important. 

"I just want to know what’s going on and why Paul wasn’t released, as well,” said Stevens, noting she had reached out Wednesday to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan for details.

“I remain very focused and dedicated to seeing his return. We’ve had to be steady," she said. "What I know is that no one has given up on Paul."

The U.S. House on Wednesday passed by voice vote a resolution by Stevens demanding Whelan's release from Russia. The measure states that he was "wrongfully convicted" in 2020 and calls his situation a "travesty to justice."

The resolution was co-sponsored by every member of Michigan's delegation. 

David Whelan noted that Biden officials have engaged in more outreach with the Whelan family than the Trump administration did, saying that interactions with Blinken and Sullivan "meant something to our family."

"If nothing else, on this day when my twin brother continues to suffer a gross injustice in Russia and another American is freed from injustice, I am confident President Biden cares and his team is making an effort," David said. "Unfortunately, that wasn't enough for Paul."

Fayhee said the Biden administration has tools that it hasn't tapped in Whelan's case, such as issuing an executive order under a 2020 law that authorized sanctions over unlawful and wrongful detainee cases. 

But Melvyn Levitsky, a professor of international policy at the University of Michigan, doubted that more sanctions on Russia would make a difference on this circumstance. 

"We’ve got pretty tough sanctions on them now as a result of Ukraine. What is left to sanction them on?" said Levitsky, a former diplomat who spent three years in Moscow during the Cold War.

Levitsky said the Whelans have good cause to be concerned that an agreement for Whelan's release won't come together quickly so soon after Reed's return home, noting that talks about a swap usually strive for equivalence in the types of crimes alleged. 

"My sense would be unfortunately now we’re talking about a separate negotiation and finding some kind of equivalence, as well," he said. "Generally, it wouldn’t be one right after the other."