Peters wants Trump to use hostage negotiator to free Whelan from Moscow prison

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — U.S. Sen. Gary Peters is urging President Donald Trump to secure the release of Michigan resident Paul Whelan from Russia by involving his top hostage negotiator.

Peters, a Michigan Democrat, wrote Friday to Trump asking him to direct his new national security adviser to work on freeing Whelan, who has been in prison in Moscow for nearly nine months. 

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, has asked President Donald Trump to intervene in his case.

"In particular, I request that you direct your new National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to prioritize resolving this situation and utilize the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SEPHA) to advocate on behalf of Mr. Whelan and support the Whelan family," Peters wrote.

"Although the Russian Federation has accused Mr. Whelan of espionage, the circumstances surrounding his arrest are suspect, and his prolonged detention without evidence is troubling. The Russian government has not provided adequate information or evidence about the case against Mr. Whelan to justify his continued detention." 

Whelan, 49, of Novi was arrested Dec. 28 in a Moscow hotel room and 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 and has urged Trump to intervene. 

Whelan told the BBC while in court last week that a Russian friend planted a hard drive on him without his knowing. 

Trump has made no public comments about Whelan’s case. That stands in contrast to Trump's protests after the arrest of rapper A$AP Rocky — whose real name is Rakim Mayers — this summer on assault charges in Sweden. 

Trump went so far as to send O'Brien, then a special envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department, to secure A$AP Rocky's release from a Swedish jail. Trump named O'Brien his new national security adviser last week. 

"There are similarities between Mr. Mayers’ case and Mr. Whelan’s situation that warrant the involvement of the SPEHA," Peters wrote. 

"This is a time sensitive matter as Mr. Whelan has alleged abuse by the guards at Lefortovo Prison, and he is suffering from a hernia that requires medical attention."

Peters and other members of Congress this month introduced a bipartisan resolution urging Russia to either produce "credible" evidence against Whelan or "immediately" release him from custody.

Whelan's family and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow have raised concerns about his declining health due to the hernia, as well as his treatment and isolation by authorities in Russia. His trial is not expected until early 2020. 

Whelan spoke to the BBC last week about the circumstances of his arrest through his glass enclosure inside a Moscow courtroom.

"A person turned up at my (hotel) room and put something in my pocket, then I was arrested," Whelan said.

"That person was an FSB (Russia's Federal Security Service) officer. Someone I had known for 10 years. There was absolutely no reason that person should have been in the room. No reason they should have given me any sort of flash drive."

Asked whether there were state secrets on the drive, as the prosecution maintains, Mr Whelan told the BBC he had "no idea."

"I never looked at it. I didn't know I had it until I was arrested. This is 100% a provocation, and a really bad one," he said.