As the Biden administration celebrated the successful prisoner swap with Russia that freed WNBA star Brittney Griner, questions swirled over the deal leaving U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan in Moscow’s hands.
The White House on Thursday called it a “very painful decision” that led to Griner boarding a plane to the U.S. while Whelan remained in a Russian prison.
The former Marine was arrested by Russian officials in 2018 for alleged espionage, charges that are widely considered to be false. However, he was convicted and sentenced to serve 16 years in prison.
Griner was arrested earlier this year when vape cartridges containing small amounts of cannabis oil were found in her luggage at a Russian airport. The two-time Olympic champion was sentenced to nine years in prison and was being held in a labor camp for foreign prisoners in Mordovia.
The Biden administration attempted to negotiate a two-for-one prisoner swap by sending notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to Moscow. The so-called “Merchant of Death” for several years used multiple companies to smuggle arms to the Middle East and Africa.
We traded a Russian Arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the "Merchant of Death" to Russia for the release Brittney Griner…
1) I never want to hear the words "Gun Control" come from Biden's mouth again after this one
2) US Marine Paul Whelan is still imprisoned in Russia.
— Shawn Farash ❌🐻 (@Shawn_Farash) December 8, 2022
He is known to be a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Putin held his ground and would only agree to setting Griner free in exchange for Bout’s release.
A senior White House official told Politico that Russia treated the “sham” charges against Griner differently from those against Whelan. Therefore, the choice ultimately came down to “bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none.”
Former President Donald Trump blasted the deal on his Truth Social media platform, describing it as an “embarrassment” and “unpatriotic.”
In a telephone interview with CNN from his Russian penal colony on Thursday, Whelan said that he does not know if he will be free in time to see his family. “My parents are older,” he explained, “If I’m stuck here much longer, I’m in danger of never seeing them again.”
He added that he is packed and ready to leave. Whelan told CNN that he is being held for “a crime that never happened.”
Despite his family member still being held captive, Whelan’s brother David congratulated Griner in a Thursday statement on her release. He wrote “there is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed” and to return home.
He asked how many more times he needed to write that “Paul is still a hostage.” David Whelan described his family as “devastated” and said that his brother is working hard to survive what is now almost “four years of this injustice.”