Paul Whelan, an American wrongfully detained in Russia, has reportedly been moved to a prison hospital and has been unable to contact his family for a week, according to his brother.
The lack of communication has raised serious concerns for the family, said David Whelan, who questioned the penal colony’s claim that his brother was transferred to the hospital. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday the United States is “working every day to make sure that we have contact with him, that we understand what the exact situation is.”
Paul, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in a remote penal colony, has “repeatedly” told his family that “if he doesn’t call home for more than 3 days, to alert the US Embassy,” David said in an email Monday.
“So our parents did that, and heard back that the consular staff had also not heard from Paul,” David said, noting that the US Embassy has a regular call scheduled with Paul on Thursday, which he missed last week.
“It’s incredibly unusual for Paul to miss trying to call home on a holiday like Thanksgiving,” he said. “We’ve been worried for 1,431 days if I’m frank, but days when he is out of contact for a stretch of time we worry with specificity.”
David told CNN on Wednesday that Paul had previously called their parents daily, and “days he doesn’t call often mean he’s using his call to speak to an Embassy.”
“If Paul doesn’t call today, which seems likely (he would normally call by 2pm Eastern), it means he’ll have not only missed Thanksgiving but also our Dad’s birthday, which is sort of unheard of,” David said. “He used to ask the US consular staff to remind me and Elizabeth,” his sister, “and our other brother to remember Mum and Dad’s birthdays, and it would be really out of character for him not to call unless he was unable to. He’s hyper aware of those important dates.”
David said on Wednesday afternoon that Paul had not called.
In an email Tuesday, David said staff at the penal colony said his brother was moved on Friday, November 18, to the prison hospital.
“If this is true, why?” David asked. “Paul was not complaining of any health conditions that required hospitalization, so has there been an emergency? He appeared healthy and well to the Embassy staff.”
He also noted that his parents had spoken to Paul “a number of times” after he was allegedly moved “and never mentioned it.”
“If Paul’s at the prison hospital, why is he being prohibited from making phone calls that every prisoner is allowed to make? Is he unable to make calls? Or is he really still at IK-17 but he’s been put in solitary and the prison is hiding that fact,” David added.
“Unfortunately, we have to take what the prison says at face value since we have no way of communicating with them or validating what they assert,” he said.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN that they “are aware of reports that Paul Whelan was recently moved to a prison hospital and was unable to call home over the holiday.”
“The Embassy continues to press for timely updates on Paul Whelan’s location and condition,” the spokesperson said.
If Paul was moved to a prison hospital on November 18, the transfer took place just days after US and Irish officials were able to visit him at the penal colony. It would also be the second time he was transferred to a prison hospital in nearly as many months, after being moved to one for an unknown reason in mid-September.
The Biden administration has worked to secure the release of Paul and another American wrongfully detained in Russia, US women’s basketball star Brittney Griner.
Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August, was recently transferred to a different penal colony in the same region where Paul Whelan is detained.
In June, the United States put forward what administration officials have described as a “significant proposal” to free the detained Americans, including a prisoner swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
A source familiar with the negotiations told CNN the US “didn’t simply make an offer, we have also tried to articulate other options, other categories of options, to create the space to really have the haggling that we want to have.”
“Because if you’re haggling, you’re getting closer. And instead we have had no change or softening of a response that is simply a demand for something we just can’t provide because it’s not something in our control,” the source said.
Although a top Russian official has recently voiced optimism about reaching a deal, US officials have cautioned that those words have not been backed up with actions.
“The Russian government’s failure to seriously negotiate on these issues in the established channels or any other channel for that matter runs counter to its public statements,” State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said in mid-November.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the date when Paul Whelan was reportedly transferred to the hospital.