U.S. officials on Wednesday marked the four-year anniversary of American Paul Whelan's detention in Russia by calling for his release. File Photo Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE
Dec. 28 (UPI) -- Four years after Russia detained American citizen Paul Whelan on spy accusations, the United States on Wednesday pressed for the former U.S. Marine's release.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Whelan's current imprisonment in a Russian penal colony "remains unacceptable" in a statement on Wednesday.
"We continue to press for his immediate release at every opportunity," Blinken said. "I am committed to bringing home Paul and all U.S. hostages and wrongful detainees held around the world."
That same commitment also was echoed by the White House, where National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan released a statement saying, "we will not relent, we will not cease until all Americans can celebrate Paul's return."
"Paul and the Whelan family recently showed the entire country the meaning of generosity of spirit in celebrating a fellow American's return while Russia continues its deplorable treatment of Paul as a bargaining chip," Sullivan said, referencing the recent release of American basketball player Brittney Griner.
At the time of Griner's release earlier this month, there was some speculation that Whelan, 52, might be part of an exchange of prisoners. Instead, WNBA star and Olympian Griner was released in a one-for-one prisoner exchange with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the "Merchant of Death." Bout was serving a 25-year prison sentence for selling weapons; Griner had been arrested in February after Russian authorities said they found a cannabis vape cartridge in her luggage.
With Griner's release, U.S. President Joe Biden at the time said the government has not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years" and was still committed to securing his release.
"This was not a choice of which American to bring home," Biden said. "While we have not succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up. We will never give up."
Whelan's brother David Whelan also issued a statement then, saying his family was happy for Griner and hoped that her release would pave the way toward his brother's eventual release.
In 2020, a Russian court sentenced Whelan to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He had been arrested in Moscow in 2018 on a wedding visit during which Russian authorities said he was found to be in possession of state secrets on a flash drive.
Whelan denied the allegations and called his trial "political theater." In 2019, he publicly appealed to then-President Donald Trump, saying his arrest was "absurd."
The Biden administration has accused Russia of treating the Whelan case differently from Griner's, and in Blinken's statement today, he reiterated that Russian authorities subjected Whelan to "a secret trial."
Whelan is serving time at hard labor at a Mordovia prison camp.
When Griner, a 32-year-old center for the Phoenix Mercury, was released this month, her wife, Cherelle Griner, also called for Whelan's release.
"My family is whole, but as you are aware, there's so many other families who are not whole," Cherelle Griner said. "B.G. is not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that B.G. and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul [Whelan], whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate B.G. home."