Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan was still stuck behind bars in Russia even as WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release sparked celebrations early Thursday.
Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in June 2020 for what he described as bogus espionage charges, told CNN from his penal colony that he was surprised not to be included in the latest prisoner exchange.
He said he’d been “led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon.”
While he said he was glad about Griner’s newfound freedom, he was “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred.”
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.
Whelan’s name was initially floated as part of a potential prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, but with Bout’s release in exchange for Griner this week, it appears that leverage was lost.
“This is the event we wish for so much for our own family. She will be reunited with her family. Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage,” Paul Whelan’s brother David said in a statement after Griner’s release.
“Our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul,” David Whelan said.
David added, however, that it is “so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom.”
“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen,” he said.
President Joe Biden responded to growing questions Thursday over why Whelan appeared to be left out yet again. He said it was “not a choice of which American to bring home” but that Russia is taking a harder line on Whelan for “totally illegitimate reasons.”
“We are not giving up. We will never give up,” he said.
Vladimir Zherebenkov, a lawyer for Whelan, previously told The Daily Beast he was “disappointed” when the 52-year-old was apparently passed over in the summer when American Trevor Reed was released from Russian custody.
“Paul should have been the first to get swapped. He is older, he has had concussions after the war, he has had a surgery and frankly, he has been suffering morally much more than Trevor,” Zherebenkov said at the time.