White House calls video of imprisoned US citizen Paul Whelan ‘reassuring’

Whelan has been detained in Russia for more than four years on espionage charges that he and the US say are illegitimate.

Verdict hearing of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, in Moscow
The US has continued to call on Russia to release former US Marine Paul Whelan, seen here during his verdict hearing in Moscow on June 15, 2020 [Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

The administration of United States President Joe Biden has said that it was comforted to see video footage of Paul Whelan, a US citizen jailed in Russia on espionage charges.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre called for an end to the 52-year-old Whelan’s imprisonment in Russia, where he is currently serving a 16-year sentence.

“It was reassuring to see that he remains — and this is to use his brother’s words — ‘unbowed’. Paul continues to show tremendous courage,” said Jean-Pierre. “Russia should release him immediately.”

The US has unsuccessfully lobbied Russia for years to secure Whelan’s release, accusing Moscow of improperly detaining one of its citizens.

A former US marine and security executive, Whelan was arrested in Russia in 2018 and convicted of spying in 2020. He has been serving prison time in a penal colony in Mordovia. The Russian media outlet RT recently released a video showing Whelan going about his day in a uniform at a labour camp.

The Russian government has defended Whelan’s imprisonment, saying that he obtained classified state information while on a trip to Moscow.

The US envoy at the time called the criminal proceeding a “secret trial in which no evidence was produced”, and the White House has maintained that his detention is illegitimate.

Whelan also denied the charges, as has his family, which continues to call for his release.

The Biden administration attempted to include Whelan in a prisoner exchange with Russia last year. But while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he made a “substantive proposal” to Russia, the deal ultimately did not include Whelan.

Instead, in December, the US released arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, arrested in Russia for possession of vape cartridges with cannabis oil.

“While we have not yet succeeded in securing [Whelan’s] release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” Biden said at the time. “We remain in close touch with [his] family, the Whelan family, and my thoughts and prayers are with them today.”

For his part, Whelan expressed disappointment that he was not included in the December deal between Moscow and Washington.

“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said in a phone interview with US news outlet CNN.

Whelan is not the only US citizen to be held in Russia under what Washington considers illegitimate circumstances.

The Russian government recently extended the pre-trial detention of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter facing espionage charges. His detention met widespread condemnation from US officials and press freedom groups.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies