Paul Whelan, an American who is wrongfully detained in Russia, told CNN on Sunday that he feels confident that his case is a priority for the United States government but wishes it could be resolved faster.
“I remain positive and confident on a daily basis that the wheels are turning. I just wish they would turn a little bit more quickly,” said Whelan, who called CNN exclusively from his prison camp in remote Mordovia.
Whelan said he does harbor concerns that he could be left behind again – particularly after the Russians wrongfully detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich.
“That’s an extreme worry for me and my family,” he said. The US was unable to secure Whelan’s release in prisoner swaps that brought home two other wrongfully detained Americans last year: Trevor Reed in April and Brittney Griner in December.
However, Whelan said Sunday he has more confidence in the US efforts to get him home than he did when he spoke to CNN in December following Griner’s release.
“I have been told that I won’t be left behind, and I have been told that although Evan’s case is a priority, mine is also a priority, and people are cognizant of the fact that this is having an extremely negative impact on me and my family. And I’m told that the government is working tirelessly to get me out of here and to get me home so they can then focus effort on Evan and his case,” Whelan said.
“I feel that my life shouldn’t be considered less valuable or important than others who have been previously traded. And I think there are people in DC that feel the same way, and they’re moving towards a compromise and resolution to this as quickly as they can,” he said.
“There will be an end to this, and I hope it’s coming sooner than later, but it is depressing on a daily basis going through this,” Whelan added, telling CNN he has “the usual aches and pains of forced labor … and poor living conditions.”
“That’s a daily reminder of where I am and how long I’ve been here,” he said.
Whelan – who has US, Irish, British and Canadian citizenship – was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. The former United States Marine was sentenced to 16 years in prison on an espionage charge he vehemently denies.
Part of Whelan’s renewed confidence in the US efforts, he said, comes from the public messages he has been able to see from President Joe Biden, and from his sister Elizabeth Whelan’s presence at a United Nations Security Council meeting chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“I will say that the comments President Biden made at the press corps dinner were very, very encouraging,” he said, referencing Biden’s remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in which the president said that he and his administration will not stop fighting for Whelan “until we get him home.”
In addition to seeing parts of Biden’s speech at the dinner, Whelan told CNN he was also able to watch his sister speak at the UN last month. He said he believes the Russians allowed these events to be shown because they try to spin them as “the Americans begging for one of their people back.”
“It was funny because we stood here in the prison watching the TV and watching my sister speak at the UN, and everyone was mesmerized that this sort of thing could happen. And I said, ‘You know, in America and in Canada, England, Ireland, this is the sort of thing that we do. We have the freedom to speak out and to speak at a place like the UN.’ But it is unprecedented. And, you know, I thank everyone involved with making that happen,” Whelan said.
“The public displays and events such as the press corps dinner and the UN visit demonstrate to not just me, privately, but to the world that our leaders are impacted by this, and they do want me back, and they are working to try to get me home,” he told CNN. “If you consider all of the people and all of the agencies in my four countries that are working on this, it’s incredible, and I think they’re going to get it done.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly said that the US has put forward a “serious proposal” to secure Whelan’s release, and the US State Department has said it has “no higher priority” than securing Whelan and Gershkovich’s release.
Whelan told CNN he knows “that there are negotiations underway.”
He urged Russian officials “to sit down with the US side work this out quickly and get it resolved,” and reiterated that the espionage charges against him are fabricated.
Whelan also urged Biden to continue the efforts to bring him home.
“Mr. President, I’ve been held hostage for more than 52 months, and the only crime I have committed in Russia is that of being an American citizen. Freedom is not free, it comes at a price. But the loss of freedom is even more costly, and I pay that cost every day Russia holds me. Please follow through with your promises and commitments, truly make my life a priority, and get me home. Thank you very much,” Whelan said.
Whelan described conditions at his prison camp as poor but better than other camps in Russia.
“The food’s not very good. The sanctions are hitting hard. Everything’s watered down. Medical care, dental care is provided privately,” he told CNN.
He said that prisoners from the camp have been recruited to fight in the war in Ukraine and that Russian state media has attempted to interview him for propaganda purposes.
Whelan’s brother, David, said that he was “really pleased to hear the positivity” in his brother’s voice Sunday.
“I think we are worried about his mental health and his morale and his ability to keep going day to day until something is resolved, so all of that sounded very positive,” he told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
He called on the administration not to “waste any more time” in its efforts to secure his brother’s release.
“I think we have waited a long time since Secretary Blinken made the comment about a substantial offer had been made to the Kremlin and that the Kremlin hadn’t responded. We’ve waited months,” David Whelan said.
“I’m sure that they don’t forget that each day Paul has to spend waiting for them to act, but I wish they would act more quickly, more decisively, and bring Paul and bring other Americans home.”
This story has been updated with additional information.