Biden phones sister of Michigan's Paul Whelan, held in Russia for 3.5 years

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The White House said President Joe Biden called the sister of Michigan's Paul Whelan on Friday and reaffirmed that he is committed to bringing him home "as soon as possible" from Russia, where he's been held for 3.5 years.

In a statement, the White House said the administration would "continue its efforts to secure the release of Paul as well as Brittney Griner and all other Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained around the world."

President Joe Biden speaks on the South Lawn of the White House, Monday, July 4, 2022, in Washington.

"The U.S. government will continue to be in regular contact with Paul’s family, and with the families of other Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, to provide support and assistance and keep them updated on efforts to secure the release of their loved ones." 

Whelan's sister, Elizabeth, said she was "quite surprised" to answer her phone and have the caller be the president.

"And particularly for our brother Paul's sake, I was truly touched that President Biden would take the time to reassure me, as he did, that work is ongoing to get Paul out of Russia and back home to Michigan," Elizabeth Whelan told The Detroit News. 

It "was a great honor, and it will be wonderful for our parents to be able to share this news with Paul when he is next able to phone them," she added.

Paul Whelan, 52, is a former security executive from Novi who has been imprisoned 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 serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor at a prison camp in Mordovia where he spends his days working in a garment factory. U.S. officials and lawmakers have long labeled his detention "wrongful" and pressed for his release.

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

His family was "astonished" earlier this week after Biden phoned the wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner but did not also call the Whelans, who have been seeking an audience with Biden for months. Elizabeth Whelan said then she was "crushed" after putting in four requests to meet with Biden that has not been granted, she said.  

The Whelans suggested the disparate treatment is due to Griner's celebrity. The two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury was arrested in Moscow in February and faces possibly 10 years in prison in Russia on drug charges. 

"I have always had faith that work was taking place behind the scenes, although earlier this week I did wonder if perhaps somehow Paul's case was falling to the wayside when I heard about the president's call to Cherelle Griner," Elizabeth Whelan said. 

"I couldn't help but react emotionally to that news. It's so difficult for a family to understand exactly what is going on, as so much of these negotiations have to be kept quiet."

Outside the White House on May 5, 2022, Elizabeth Whelan, sister of Paul Whelan, describes receiving the call from the Department of State last week informing her that Russia had released Trevor Reed in a prisoner swap with the U.S.

She was referring to a prisoner swap negotiated earlier this year that led to Russia releasing Trevor Reed of Texas. Reed, like Whelan, is a former U.S. Marine arrested after traveling to Russia as a tourist, but Reed was included in the prisoner swap, and Whelan was not. 

Biden's call to Griner's wife, Cherelle, came after a national CBS interview she did Tuesday, arguing that the president needed to do more to help and noting that she had not yet heard from Biden.

More:Whelan's sister wants meeting with Biden in wake of Reed release

Whelan's twin brother, David, said Wednesday the episode said a lot about how a detainee's family resources matter. 

"I don't begrudge Ms. Griner and her supporters their success in getting the president's attention while he ignores so many other families," David said.

"It suggests the only way to get the White House's attention, under President Trump or President Biden, is to have celebrity and wealth and resources that most wrongful detainees do not have."

David later said that a presidential phone call isn't necessarily dispositive, and it would be much more meaningful for someone on Biden's team to call his family to say Paul was on a plane home.

mburke@detroitnews.com