House lawmakers urge Russia to release Whelan, Reed from prison after weeks of no contact

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Members of Congress from Michigan and Texas renewed their calls Thursday for Russia to release prisoners Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, directing a bipartisan message to Vladimir Putin that the men are a priority and the U.S. won't give up its demands.

"This is entirely unacceptable and will never stand in the United States of America," said U.S. Rep Haley Stevens, the Rochester Hills Democrat who represents Whelan in Congress. "We believe and we continue to envision, and pray and push for their return home."

The lawmakers gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol as Novi's Whelan marked 944 days in detention and the families of both men have gone weeks without hearing from them. It's been nearly a month of silence in the case of Whelan, who has been in solitary confinement but whose exact whereabouts are unknown, his family said. 

"Our main concern right now, quite frankly, is the well-being of our brother," said Elizabeth Whelan, Paul's sister, who joined the eight House lawmakers at the Capitol.

"We're assuming he's still at the prison IK-17. We actually don't know because he has been put in solitary for reasons we don't understand."

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.

Whelan, 51, of Novi is expected to remain in solitary until early August, continuing four weeks of no contact with his family, according to his brother, David Whelan. Stevens said Paul had previously been forced to work six days a week at a prison garment factory, sustaining a repetitive use injury to his arm.

Reed's father said his family hasn't heard from him in two weeks, since his transfer presumably to a labor camp.

The U.S. Senate last week adopted by voice vote a resolution calling for Russia to provide "credible" evidence or to immediately release Whelan.

A companion resolution has been reintroduced in the U.S. House by Stevens and Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, and is expected to be taken up by the chamber in September. 

Walberg represents Whelan's parents, Ed and Rosemary, in Manchester, Michigan, who are in their 80s and expect that it's possible they will never see their son Paul again in their lifetimes.

"I can't fathom it," Walberg said. "We are not going to give up."

Elizabeth Whelan said her family appreciates the lawmakers' support but "the frustration is building" that more has not been done.

"Things are reaching a bit of a boiling point, and we want this addressed. We want these Americans to come home," she said. 

President Joe Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June and said afterward that he is "not going to walk away" from the situations of the two "wrongfully imprisoned" Americans, referring to Whelan and Reed.

"The families of the detained Americans I have hope for," Biden told reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, after the summit. "It came up, and we discussed it. We're going to follow through with that discussion. I am not going to walk away on that."

Elizabeth Whelan, sister to Paul Whelan, speaks at the U.S. Capitol with members of Congress from Michigan and Texas on July 29, 2021.

Lawmakers a week ago received a classified briefing about Whelan's case. U.S. Rep. Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Thursday there have been some "high-level" meetings on the matter with Russian officials since the Biden-Putin summit, but he didn't elaborate. 

"I think there potentially could be some progress," McCaul said. "And I think fundamentally that's because the family and bipartisan members of Congress raised it to a level where President Biden put it on the agenda. That was hugely important."

McCaul also noted the Biden administration’s recent decision not to sanction Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline in Europe and said he doesn't want to see any more concessions to Putin "until we get these men home."

Massachusetts Rep. Bill Keating, who chairs the Foreign Affairs subcommittee with jurisdiction over Russia, said Putin should be on notice that the U.S. will use "all our resources ... to make this message clear," including imposing sanctions and calling on U.S. corporations with investments in the Russian economy to act. 

Asked what specific actions the U.S. government might take, Keating did not offer details.

"We have a lot of leverage that could be used. We have a lot of options that can be used. But in the course of these kind of delicate negotiations, it's really better to keep those private, but we'll use them when they're necessary," Keating said.

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

He last spoke to his parents in Michigan by phone either July 2 or 3 and was then placed in solitary confinement for 15 days, his brother, David, said.

"Apparently a guard found some food in a bag, which sounds like a pretext to me and he has been there ever since," David said Thursday.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has not been able to speak with Whelan but learned that he had been given a second 15 days, David said. If the solitary confinement is not extended, the family expects him to be out of it around the middle of next week.

It has been the longest stretch of time that Whelan has been isolated and unable to call his parents or have contact with any embassy staff since he arrived at the labor camp in Mordovia last fall, David said. 

The family last month had released an audio message from Whelan recorded during a May 30 phone call with his parents. In it, Whelan had implored Biden to secure his release when he met 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 former security executive, Whelan was convicted about a year ago after a secret trial. 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.

Like Whelan, Reed is a former Marine who traveled to Russia as a tourist. Reed was arrested following an altercation with police in Moscow in 2019. U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan described Reed's trial as a “theater of the absurd." He was sentenced to nine years in a prison camp.

A spokesman for the State Department, Ned Price, last week told reporters that he had no update to share with them.

"Of course, we continue to be concerned over their plight," Price said. "We will continue to speak out on behalf of their cases. We will continue to do all we can, both publicly and behind the scenes, to effect their safe return to their families in the United States. We do so and we will do that knowing that they have been deprived of their freedom for far too long."

Reed's father, Joey, said Thursday he believes the State Department is doing all it can for his son, but "we wish they'd move faster."

The last time he spoke to Trevor he was in good spirits, in part because Biden and members of Congress had stated their belief in his innocence by way of a formal resolution, Joey said. 

"He has low hopes of being returned," he said. "Of course, we have high hopes, especially because of the people with us here today."