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U.S. lawmakers urging Biden to raise Whelan detention with Putin

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — U.S. lawmakers from Michigan and Texas are urging President Joe Biden to raise the issue of Russia's detention of American citizens Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed when he meets Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

In a bipartisan Tuesday letter, U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens — who represents Novi's Whelan in Congress — led a group of about 45 colleagues in writing to Biden ahead of his summit with Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, calling the charges against Whelan and Reed "legally dubious and politically motivated."

"These political arrests are unacceptable and fly in the face of international legal standards," the lawmakers wrote. 

Paul Whelan, a former BorgWarner employee from Novi, was jailed for alleged spying in Russia a year ago. His family has worked to free him.

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They asked Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to "redouble your commitments to stand up for human rights, due process, and dignity of Americans abroad."

"We also urge you to intensify wherever possible your engagement with President Putin to make clear that politically motivated arrests and the detention of U.S. citizens are unacceptable," they added. "We must continue to urge him to release all prisoners unjustly imprisoned in Russia." 

In addition to Stevens and U.S. Rep. August Pfluger, a Texas Republican, the letter was signed by the entire Michigan delegation, including U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, who represents Manchester, Michigan, where Whelan's parents live.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California signed the letter as did the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, and Texas Sen. John Cornyn.

The White House has indicated that humanitarian concerns will be brought up as part of the agenda at the Biden-Putin summit. 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."

A senior administration official told press traveling with Biden in Europe that the Biden-Putin meetings are expected to last four or five hours Wednesday and reiterated that human rights would be raised. "Nothing is off the table," the official said.

A top U.S. diplomat in Moscow noted Tuesday is the 900th day of Whelan's incarceration. Deputy Chief of Mission Bartle B. Gorman also said Biden plans to bring up the issue with Putin at the bilateral summit, U.S. embassy spokesman Jason P. Rebholz tweeted. 

Whelan, 51, has been in custody in Russia for 30 months since his arrest at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and later conviction on espionage charges that he's repeatedly denied. Whelan is now serving a a 16-year sentence of hard labor.

His family on Monday released an audio message from Whelan recorded during a May 30 phone call with his parents in Michigan from his labor camp in Mordovia. Whelan implored Biden to secure his release when he meets with Putin to "bring this appalling case of hostage diplomacy to an end."

"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 said 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."

A University of Michigan expert said it's quite possible that Biden will raise the issue of American prisoners in Wednesday's summit, and that a deal of some sort is possible because Putin likely seeks at least a modest easing of tensions between the two nations as U.S. sanctions wear on the Russian economy.

"However, Biden is unlikely to agree to a straightforward prisoner swap, which many would see as rewarding unjust Russian behavior," said John D. Ciorciari, director of UM's International Policy Center and Weiser Diplomacy Center.

"Even including the issue within a negotiation is problematic for that reason."

Making the prisoners' release a precondition for talks — as some Republican lawmakers have suggested — might have been less controversial, Ciorciari said, but Putin probably would not have satisfied that demand.

"Ultimately, Biden wanted the meeting," Ciorciari said.

Whelan's family is hoping the summit could lay the groundwork for Whelan's release.

"(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.

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

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens during a meeting and tour with executives of Mahle Industries Inc.

The U.S. 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. 

Stevens in a statement said Russia has repeatedly violated Whelan's rights, denied him proper medical care and refused to provide evidence to substantiate the charges against him.

"Enough is enough. I urge President Biden to advocate on behalf of my constituent and his family. It is time to bring Paul home," Stevens said. 

US ex-marine Trevor Reed, charged with attacking police, stands inside a defendants' cage during his verdict hearing at Moscow's Golovinsky district court on July 30, 2020.

Tuesday's letter notes that Reed, a former U.S. Marine who hails from Texas, was arrested following an altercation with police in Moscow in 2019. U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan has described Reed's trial as a “theater of the absurd. Reed, who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, was sentenced to nine years in prison camp.

Blinken has brought up 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.