Paul Whelan says he is ‘disappointed’ that more has not been done to free him from Russia

Washington (CNN) — Paul Whelan, an American detained in Russia, exclusively told CNN his frustration that more steps have not been taken to secure his release from Russia. His statements come hours after another detained American, basketball star Brittney Griner, was released on Thursday.

Whelan said he was happy for Griner’s release, but told CNN: “I am very disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest approaches.”

“I was detained for a crime that never happened,” he continued during a phone call from the penal colony where he is being held in a remote part of Russia. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

Brittney Griner released from Russian prison 4:42

The interview came shortly after President Joe Biden, joined by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, also lamented the fact that the United States failed to bring Whelan home. Biden vowed that the country would “never give up” on him. US officials claimed the Russians refused to negotiate his release.

“This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American we brought home. It was a choice between bringing home a specific American, Brittney Griner, or not bringing home any,” he said on the morning of this Thursday a senior official in the Biden administration.

Whelan said he was surprised that he had been left behind.

“They made me believe that things were on the right track, that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen quite soon,” he said.

Whelan, a former marine with American, Irish, British and Canadian nationality, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities, who accused him of being involved in an intelligence operation. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial that US officials denounced as unfair.

US officials have said the Russians refused to release him despite US efforts in negotiations, and Whelan explained that he was told that because the Russians accused him of being a spy, “I have been put in a higher level than what they did with Trevor (Reed) and Brittney.”

“That raises a lot of concerns because none of it is true. And they are trying to get out of the United States what the United States may not be able to provide, but this is basically political extortion,” he said.

Whelan also commented that he is aware that he was considered in a different category than Griner: “The Russians have always said that.”

“I’ve always been considered on a higher level than other criminals of my kind and, for whatever reason, I’m treated differently than another individual here from a Western country who’s also charged with espionage. So even though the We’re both here for espionage, I’m treated very differently than he is, and I’m also treated very differently from other people detained for espionage in other prisons,” Whelan said.

“I have my bags ready”

Whelan said he hopes Biden and his administration “will do everything they can to bring me home, regardless of the price they have to pay right now.”

“I would say if a message could be sent to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly,” he said.

“My bags are packed. I’m ready to go home. I just need a plane to come and pick me up,” he said.

Whelan said he would like to speak to Biden directly, noting that he had spoken with an administration official hours earlier about the situation. But “I think that message really needs to go to people like the president, so they personally understand what I’m going through and what we go through in these foreign prisons and under these circumstances,” he added.

“It’s pretty obvious they’re holding me hostage,” he said.

Whelan expressed concern that he will not be able to return to the United States, noting that he has 12 years remaining on his sentence.

Biden acknowledged the Whelan family on Thursday, saying the Griner-for-prisoner swap was “not a choice of which American to bring home.”

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Biden said. “And while we still haven’t gotten Paul released, we’re not giving up. We will never give up.”

National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby later said Thursday that the United States “has not come full circle” in its negotiations for Whelan’s release.

“We’ve had active talks with the Russians on the Whelan case for a long, long time. Those talks have certainly accelerated in recent months and I can assure you we’re going to have them going forward,” Kirby told CNN’s Kate Bolduan. .

This same Thursday, the brother of Paul Whelan, David, declared that his family is “devastated” and has expressed his concern that his brother will be left behind again.

“This is a great day for the families of those wrongfully detained and we feel wonderful for them,” David Whelan said on “CNN This Morning.” “But we’re worried about Paul’s future. I think it’s been made clear that the United States doesn’t have any concessions that the Russian government wants for Paul. So I’m not really sure what the future holds.”

In an earlier statement, David Whelan said the family is “devastated” that Paul remains in Russia.

“Despite the possibility of a trade without Paul, our family remains devastated. I can’t even imagine how Paul will feel when he finds out. Paul has worked very hard to survive this injustice for almost 4 years,” she said in the statement. .

— Haley Britzky and Betsy Klein contributed reporting.

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