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US ambassador to Russia visits Whelan in notorious penal colony, demands his release

Paul Whelan imprisoned in Russia (U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Russia/Released)
September 17, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, visited Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine jailed in Russia over what the United States calls bogus espionage charges, for the first time in four months, as Washington again demanded his immediate release.

The State Department on September 13 said Tracy met with Whelan at the penal colony in Mordovia — a Russian region 350 kilometers southeast of Moscow, notorious since Soviet times for its penal colonies — where he is serving a 16-year sentence.

“Ambassador Tracy did meet with Paul Whelan earlier today,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told a briefing. “It was a consular visit.”

“We believe Paul continues to show tremendous courage in the face of his wrongful detention. Ambassador Tracy reiterated to him that President [Joe] Biden and Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken are committed to bring him home,” Miller said.

Arrested in 2018 in Russia, Whelan was convicted of spying charges in 2020. Both he and the U.S. government have denied the 53-year-old is a spy.

“The plight of U.S. citizens detained in Russia remains a top priority for the U.S. government, and we reiterate our call for Paul’s immediate release,” the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said in an earlier statement.

Tracy last visited Whelan in May, saying then that the U.S. government would continue to engage Russian authorities on his case “so Paul can come home as soon as possible.”

Tracy has also made three visits in recent months to Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested in Russia in March and also faces spying charges that he denies.

The Biden administration has designated both men as “wrongfully detained” — a term that effectively says the cases against them are politically motivated ” and has called for their immediate release.

CNN reported in August that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Whelan, assuring him that the United States was doing everything it can to bring him home as soon as possible.

The Biden administration had hoped to secure Whelan’s release during the negotiations on the prisoner exchange that eventually freed American basketball player Brittney Griner from a Russian prison in December 2022 in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Whelan’s brother David has expressed “disappointment,” saying that the former U.S. Marine was “left behind.”

Whelan was last seen in a rare video broadcast in August by a Kremlin-backed news channel. The White House said it was “reassuring” to see him looking apparently “unbowed.”

Whelan, a Michigan-based corporate security executive, was arrested in December 2018 on espionage charges while visiting Moscow for a friend’s wedding. Russia claimed Whelan was caught with a computer flash drive containing classified information.

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian, and Irish citizenship, said he was set up in a sting operation and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained vacation photos.

In June 2020, he was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years behind bars. He is currently in a high-security prison. The U.S. government said Russia produced no evidence to prove Whelan’s guilt during a trial that it called “a mockery of justice.”

Moscow holds other U.S. citizens, including Gershkovich, on charges of espionage, which he and his newspaper deny. Gershkovich was arrested in March and accused by the Federal Security Service (FSB) of collecting military secrets in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

Gershkovich’s family on September 13 said they had appealed to the UN for help in getting the reporter freed from Russia. Gershkovich’s parents and sister, standing with U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield outside the Security Council, said they had submitted a petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to plead their cause.

Lawyers for The Wall Street Journal reporter asked the working group on September 12 to issue an opinion quickly that would designate Gershkovich as being arbitrarily detained.

“Russia is not imprisoning Gershkovich because it legitimately believes its absurd claim that he is an American spy,” the newspaper said in its request.

“Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin is using Gershkovich as a pawn, holding him hostage in order to gain leverage over — and extract a ransom from — the United States, just as he has done with other American citizens whom he has wrongfully detained.”