The release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from a Russian jail as part of a prisoner swap arrangement is being hailed as a historic diplomatic achievement, giving hope to other Americans who are said to have been “wrongfully incarcerated” by Vladimir Putin’s government.
Ms. Griner, 32, was detained on suspicion of drug trafficking at a Moscow airport on February 17 after being discovered to be in possession of cannabis oil for use in a vape pen. This incident took place just one week before Russia’s illegitimate invasion of Ukraine.
After months of discussions, the basketball player, who was given a nine-year prison sentence in August, is being traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death,” and is already flying back to his home country.
Who Is Paul Whelan And Why Is He In Prison?
Whelan, who was born in Canada and holds citizenship in four countries, is a former marine who served in the United States Marine Corps from 2003 to 2008 before being dishonourably dismissed for larceny and other smaller offences.
He was the head of global security for the Michigan-based auto parts supplier BorgWarner at the time of his arrest in Russia. Whelan was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in a room in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, which is located near the Kremlin, just a few days after Christmas in 2018.
According to the investigators, he was a spy for military intelligence with the rank of colonel or higher, and he was busted red-handed with a computer flash drive that contained secret material. The disc was in his possession when he was captured.
Whelan stated that he had been in Russia for a friend’s wedding and that he had been given the drive in a sting operation by a Russian buddy. Whelan claimed that he had been duped into believing that the drive included vacation pictures.
Whelan was found guilty of spying in the year 2020 and given a sentence that required him to spend the next 16 years in a facility that had the highest possible level of security.
The US diplomats present at the hearing regarded it as being both unfair and unclear. He is being imprisoned in the IK-17 penal colony in the Mordovia region, which is located east of Moscow at the moment.
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Russian Charges Against Paul Whelan
At the time of his arrest, Paul Whelan was serving an American automotive supplier as the director of global security and investigations for the company. Between the years 2003 and 2008, he was a member of the Marine Corps Reserve and had the rank of staff sergeant. During this time, he participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Whelan was taken into custody at a hotel in 2018 while he was in Moscow, Russia, for the purpose of attending a friend’s wedding. As his twin brother, David Whelan, has mentioned, their other brother had been to Russia a number of times, and as a result, he was able to offer assistance to the groom’s family while they were vacationing in the nation for the first time.
The date January 6, 2019 was originally scheduled for his return to Michigan. However, he was soon detained by the Russian Federal Security Service, which alleged that he was a spy and involved in an intelligence investigation.
These are allegations that both Whelan and the United States have vehemently denied, and the Russian Federal Security Service continued to hold him after they were made. In 2020, he will have served 16 years in prison after being convicted of his crimes during a drawn-out and arduous legal process.
In June of 2022, it was reported that Vice President Biden had made a proposal to the Russian government to trade the convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan.
However, as is common knowledge, the arrangement was only able to secure the release of Griner, which meant that the former U.S. Marine being held captive in a Russian prison Due to the fact that he was arrested in December of 2018, this month marks the fourth year that he has spent locked up.
Why Wasn’t Whelan Included In The Prisoner Swap?
Mr. Biden made these remarks in the Oval Office of the White House while he was announcing the release of Ms. Griner. He stated that “unfortunately and for entirely illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s situation differently than Brittney’s.” Regarding the attempts being made to free Mr. Whelan, the United States government has maintained radio silence.
In a statement issued on November 9 that focused primarily on Ms. Griner, the White House indicated that the United States government is willing to follow up on its exchange offer for Ms. Griner with “alternative potential ways forward” to secure the release of Americans being held in Russian custody, including Mr. Whelan.
This was stated in reference to the US government’s offer to secure the release of Ms. Griner. Alexei Tarasov, an attorney for Viktor Bout, stated on Russian television that the exchange was conducted on a “one for one” basis, which meant that Mr. Whelan was not included in the trade.
“In all honesty,” he stated, “an exchange ought to be fair.” “If we are going to swap one person for another, we ought to swap him for another person and not for two.”
Why Was He Not Released?
Following the announcement of Griner’s release on Thursday, U.S. authorities expressed regret for not being able to obtain Whelan’s release but assured that they were still working on it. The reason such attempts have so far failed, according to President Biden, is because Russia has chosen to approach Whelan’s case “differently” as a result of the seriousness of the espionage allegations levelled against him.
These allegations of espionage, according to Biden, are “completely unjustified charges.” Biden also promised to “keep negotiating in good faith for Paul Whelan’s release.” His administration has “not forgotten about Paul Whelan.” We won’t give up, he vowed. Whelan, meanwhile, said on Thursday that he is “greatly upset” that the government hasn’t done more to ensure his release, “particularly as the four-year anniversary of my detention is approaching.
In a phone interview with CNN from the isolated Russian penal colony where he is being held, he claimed, “I was caught for a crime that never happened. Why I’m still sitting here is beyond me. Paul Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, stated in a statement that U.S. officials informed them on Wednesday that Paul wouldn’t be involved in the deal that released Griner and voiced doubt over the likelihood of seeing his brother be released.
The Russian administration will not accept any concessions from the U.S. government in exchange for Paul Whelan, that is evident. And therefore, Paul will remain a prisoner until those changes,” he said, praising Griner’s release. Whelan’s Russian attorneys expressed regret that their client was left out of the trade. According to rumours from the summer, the American government was attempting to negotiate Bout’s release in exchange for Griner and Whelan’s release.
Paul’s attorney Olga Karlova told The Post that there was “a lot of conjecture about this and optimism that Paul and his family had believed he would finally return home to his extremely elderly parents.”
She continued, “We don’t know why he hasn’t been added, maybe he’s too important for the trade, so they’ve opted to hold him for longer. “This is not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home,” a national security official said on Thursday.
“The Russians never really considered Whelan as an option during the negotiations about releasing Griner, and due to the seriousness of the espionage charges against him, Russians rejected all the proposals U.S. officials made to them.
The official, who spoke on the phone with reporters under the condition of anonymity, said: “It was a decision between sending home one American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none. The conversation on Whelan’s release, according to officials, is still ongoing.
This is Whelan’s second omission from a prisoner exchange between Moscow and Washington. Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was found guilty of narcotics smuggling and given a 20-year prison term in the United States, was traded for American Trevor Reed, a former Marine who was apprehended in 2019. This swap took place earlier this year.
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