Paul Whelan's sister gets call from President Joe Biden

·5 min read

Under increasing pressure, President Joe Biden called the sister of Paul Whelan on Friday to affirm his commitment to bringing home the Michigan man wrongfully detained in Russia.

A White House official confirmed that Biden spoke with Elizabeth Whelan and pledged to "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."

The phone conversation came after the Whelan family spoke publicly about being spurned by the White House while the families of other Americans imprisoned in Russia have gotten presidential phone calls, letters and — in the case of former Marine Trevor Reed — a prisoner exchange and return to safety in the U.S.

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Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, spoke to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday and got reassurances from them that Griner's case remains a priority.

Griner was arrested in February after authorities at an airport in Moscow found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty Thursday to drug charges, telling the court she didn't intend to break the law, Reuters reported.

Reed was returned to the U.S. in April as part of a surprise prisoner exchange with Russia that also freed convicted drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko. Reed was arrested in summer 2019 in Russia, accused of assaulting an officer following a night of heavy drinking. Reed denied the claims but was sentenced to nine years in prison. Soon after Reed's family spoke with President Joe Biden in late March, Reed was released.

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When news broke Wednesday about Cherelle Griner's phone call with the president, Whelan's twin brother, David, wrote an email to journalists about the approach the White House had taken.

"It is hard to convey how corrosive being a member of a wrongful detainee's family can be," David Whelan said. "A call from anyone in the government to show that they care can be hugely beneficial to morale, to help you keep at your advocacy and support for your loved one. It can reassure you that your loved one has not, in fact, been forgotten. And no call could matter more than one from the president."

Though Elizabeth Whelan said her family had repeatedly asked for a conversation with the president, it didn't happen until Friday.

Elizabeth Whelan said the unexpected call came as she walked Friday down a busy Lexington Avenue in New York City. She was glad she heard the phone ring over the noise of the traffic.

"When I answered, it took a minute for it to register who was on the other end" of the line, she told the Free Press. "Then I had to find a quiet place to talk so I ducked into a restaurant that was still empty and just sat down to have the conversation. The employees must have wondered what I was doing, but I was so amazed by the call and I didn't want to miss a word.

"It was the president alone, and he was very reassuring about the work being done to get Paul out of Russia and back to Michigan."

The conversation, she said, was reassuring.

"All along I have kept the faith that the government was working on Paul's behalf, but between the overall problems with Russia beyond Paul and Brittney's wrongful detentions, the behind-the-scenes nature of negotiations to get any wrongful detainee home, and the corrosive stress our family is enduring over the 3½ years of Paul's imprisonment, sometimes I just don't have the bandwidth to cope gracefully with the ups and downs of this ordeal," she said.

"The call ... from the president, and speaking with (National Security Adviser) Jake Sullivan (Thursday), has helped enormously. Our family is so very grateful that President Biden took the time to call."

In a statement, a White House official said: "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."

Paul Whelan lived in Novi and was the head of global security for Auburn Hills-based auto supplier BorgWarner when he was arrested in Moscow in December 2018. He was charged with espionage after Russian authorities said they caught him with a USB drive containing classified information.

He and his family insist he was set up and has been wrongly detained since. Whelan was convicted in a closed-door court hearing and sentenced to 16 years in a labor camp. He now is being held at IK-17 in the Republic of Mordovia, where his brother says he continues to languish.

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David Whelan said Friday's presidential phone call was a comfort after a rocky couple months of uncertainty. In May, the Whelans said they were told by a State Department official that they needed to be more vocal and "make more noise" about Paul Whelan's plight if they wanted to secure his release.

"I hope the White House will find a way to reassure other families who have wrongfully detained loved ones," David Whelan said. "I don't expect that this was the sort of 'noise' that the State Department staff had intended to have the Whelans involved in. None of us really benefit from the drama."

Still, he said, the family is grateful to the president for the call.

"As Elizabeth says, we'll continue to work hard until Paul is home," he said. "The president's call doesn't really change anything. Hard work is occurring but it hasn't yet borne a result. We will work and pray for that result to come as quickly as possible."

Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Paul Whelan's sister gets call from President Biden