Paul Whelan, a Marine veteran imprisoned in Russia, is wondering why he’s “still sitting here” after women’s basketball star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal colony in a prisoner swap with the U.S.
Griner was freed on Thursday after nearly 10 months in Russian custody. Whelan, closing in on the fourth year since his arrest, is two-and-a-half years into a 16-year sentence of hard labor.
The WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist was freed in exchange for the U.S. releasing Viktor Bout, an infamous arms dealer nicknamed “the merchant of death.”
Whelan, who was arrested in 2018 for alleged espionage, said his message to President Joe Biden is that “this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly.”
“I am 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,” Whelan told CNN. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
Referring to Whelan’s case, Biden on Thursday said: “We are not giving up. We will never give up,” CNN reported. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. is “not back to square one” on talks to free Whelan.
Griner was arrested in February on drug charges after Moscow customs officials found cannabis oil she said she mistakenly packed in her luggage. Whelan was arrested in 2018 with allegedly classified Russian information in what he has described as a set-up sting operation.
The U.S. had previously proposed freeing the arms dealer Bout for both Whelan and Griner. But Russian negotiators decided in recent weeks that only a one-for-one prisoner swap would be considered, according to PBS correspondent Nick Schifrin.
A senior U.S. official said Russians made it clear it was “not a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice of bringing home one American, Britney, or bringing home none,” Schifrin reported.
In September, Biden met with both Whelan’s sister and Griner’s wife “to keep them apprised of where we are in negotiations with Russia.”
Another American, Trevor Reed, was released in a Russian prisoner swap in April. According to a Reuters list, Whelan is the only remaining American considered by the government to be “wrongfully detained” in Russia.