U.S. citizen Paul Whelan holds up a sign denouncing the legal proceedings against him as he stands inside the defendant's cage at his espionage trial in Moscow on June 15, 2020. He was visited in prison Thursday by U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy. File Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE
May 4 (UPI) -- U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy said Thursday she has visited imprisoned American Paul Whelan at a penal colony where he is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges.
Tracy said she visited the 53-year-old Whalen at the IK17 penal colony in the Republic of Mordovia, located about 300 miles east of Moscow.
Her trip came as family members in recent weeks have kept up pressure on U.S. diplomats to negotiate a release for the former Marine, who had been working in global security for auto supply company BorgWarner at the time of his arrest.
Tracy's show of support for Whalen also came against the backdrop of last month's arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, whom U.S. officials have also declared to be "wrongfully detained" in Russia.
"Paul has been wrongfully detained in Russia for more than 4 years, and his release remains an absolute priority," Tracy said in a statement. "The U.S. government will continue to engage Russian authorities on his case so Paul can come home as soon as possible."
In December, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken marked the fourth year of Whalen's "unfathomable ordeal" in Russia, noting that authorities sentenced him to 16 years in a penal colony based on "secret evidence.
"His detention remains unacceptable, and 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."
Whalen drew the lengthy sentence in 2020, two years after his arrest in Moscow during a wedding visit. Russian authorities claimed he was found to be in possession of state secrets on a flash drive.
The Michigan resident has steadfastly denied the allegations, calling his trial "political theater" and publicly appealing to then-President Donald Trump for help.
Whalen's sister, Elizabeth Whelan, met with White House officials last month but said the talks were inconclusive, family members told the Oakland (Mich.) Press.
They said they again expressed their concern that Whelan would be left behind as the United States and Russia work have worked out swaps for other prisoners deemed to be unjustly held.
He received a consolation call from U.S. officials when WNBA star Brittney Griner -- who had been jailed for nearly 10 months in Russia -- was freed in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in December.
Griner is now among those urging for the release of Whelan and other wrongfully detained Americans.