Lawmakers push measure in Congress urging Russia to release Paul Whelan
Washington — Lawmakers introduced a bipartisan measure in Congress this week urging Russia to either produce "credible" evidence against Michigan resident Paul Whelan or "immediately" release him from custody.
It’s the highest-profile move members of Congress have made to date to pressure the Russian and U.S. governments to take action on Whelan, who has been in prison in Moscow for more than eight months.
They said part of their goal is to bring more public attention to Whelan's case because "time may not be on his side or his family's side," Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, told reporters Thursday at the U.S. Capitol.
"Together, we are all pushing for Michigander Paul Whelan’s release from Russia," Peters said.
"Not to be able to produce any sort of charges or any sort of evidence is simply not the way a government should operate. We believe the Russians should release Paul unless they come up with some sort of concrete evidence."
According to his family, Whelan, 49, of Novi was in Russia for a friend's wedding when he was arrested Dec. 28 in a Moscow hotel room. He was charged with espionage, which carries up to 20 years in prison in Russia.
The former U.S. Marine, who was director of global security for auto parts supplier BorgWarner in Auburn Hills, has denied the charges.
His lawyers say he was framed when he was handed a flash drive with classified data on it of which he had no knowledge.
Only in recent months have lawmakers started speaking more forcefully about the lack of evidence in his case.
"We want to deploy all the attention that we can put on this to see Paul come back to the United States, to see his family, to see your brother again, and to put an end to this nightmare," said Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, who represents Whelan in Congress.
Stevens said she expects to see the resolution soon on the House floor.
The measure comes after Whelan's family and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow have raised concerns about his declining health due to a hernia, as well as his treatment and isolation by authorities in Russia.
Whelan's sister, Elizabeth, attended Thursday's announcement, warning what happened to her brother could happen to any American and should not be tolerated.
"He's an extraordinary brother, but he is an ordinary American citizen who traveled to Russia to help a friend and became trade fodder in a geopolitical dispute which is not of his making," she said.
"We have endured a systemic lack of transparency, both with respect to the Russian court proceedings, as well as Paul's conditions of confinement."
"We have no means to access critical information about his well-being, including whether he's receiving adequate medical treatment or any treatment at all."
The resolution's sponsors include Peters and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, as well as Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, and Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton.
"Enough's enough. Congress will stand. We know that there are actions being taken at the administrative level and other places — some maybe even secret to us," said Walberg, who represents Manchester, Michigan, where Whelan's parents live.
"But at least Congress can stand for an American citizen and say: Bring Paul Whelan home. It’s not a partisan issue. it’s an American issue."
In the resolution, lawmakers are pressuring President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to continue to push Russian leaders to "guarantee a fair and transparent judicial process without undue delay" in accordance with international legal obligations.
Asked whether Trump could do more to intervene, Peters said "every action that can be taken will be helpful. It would be appreciated, and at this point is necessary."
But Walberg said he'd encourage Trump to get involved but only when it's advisable.
"The greater wisdom is to do what will work. Would an involvement directly with a tweet or something like that cause — I mean, we're dealing with the Russian government and Putin," Walberg said.
"We don't want to give them something that they can use to say, ah, it would be more beneficial for us to extract some things from the president as well. So right now, we are doing what we can do."
Elizabeth Whelan said her family would welcome the president's involvement, but one individual isn't going to be able to solve the problem.
"This is something that the entire government needs to work together on — having American citizens taken basically as political hostages, with a situation that's being whitewashed as judicial process," she said.
"This is something that the entire government has to solve."
The language of the resolution stresses that the FSB — the successor agency to the KGB — has not presented any evidence of wrongdoing by Whelan, yet a judge has continued to extend his pretrial detention at Lefortovo Prison for months at a time.
It also quotes Whelan's government-appointed lawyer saying in May that the FSB "always rolls out what they have, but in this case, we've seen nothing concrete against Whelan in five months. That means there is nothing."
The lawmakers are urging the Russian government to ensure Whelan receives due process and that it provides unrestricted access to Whelan by U.S. consulate officers while he's in prison.
Rep. Bill Keating, D-Massachusetts, heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that deals with Russian affairs and supports the measure.
"This is an outrage. This should end. And I hope to see action by the Russian government in this regard. That's bringing us together," Keating said.
Other co-sponsors of the resolution include Reps. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township; Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland; John Moolenaar, R-Midland; Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet; Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township; Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly; and Peter King, R-New York.