Securing the release of Paul Whelan from Russian imprisonment is a high priority for President Biden, Whelan’s family said in a statement on Tuesday.
The statement, released in an email by Whelan’s brother David, comes as critics have slammed the Biden administration for freeing convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to secure Russia’s release of Brittney Griner, a professional basketball player and Olympic medalist who was held for 10 months after a conviction on a minor drug charges that the U.S. rejected as unjust.
Staff at the White House held a virtual meeting with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister, on Monday, according to the statement from the family.
They said that meeting gave them confidence that the administration is “not letting grass grow under their feet.”
“The announcement of imminent discussions with the Russian Federation is also positive news,” the family said.
“These initial steps give us hope that the third time is the charm,” the family continued, referring to both Griner’s release and the release in April of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was detained in Russia in 2019 and exchanged in a prisoner swap with Moscow.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday that the U.S. will have “an engagement” with Russian officials this week.
“We have had regular engagement, of course, along the way and the next conversation at a high level will take place this week,” he said.
Whelan was arrested in December 2018 after he traveled to Russia to attend the wedding of a friend, his family said at the time. The Russians convicted Whelan of espionage in 2020 and sentenced him to 16 years in prison, charges that Whelan, his family, and the U.S. government have rejected as a sham.
The White House said the Russians rejected including Whelan in the Bout deal that secured the release of Griner, saying they are holding him to a higher standard because of the espionage conviction.
The Whelan family said in a statement last week that the administration “made the right decision” to secure Griner’s freedom.
Former President Trump has also been involved in the controversy, as the Whelan family has criticized him for failing to prioritize Paul Whelan’s release.
Trump and some of his allies have criticized Biden for releasing Bout — who served 15 years of a 25-year sentence in U.S. federal prison.
The Whelan family said that increased attention on Paul Whelan’s detention has led to an outpouring of support from “all political perspectives sending Paul their best wishes and hope for a speedy return home. Americans pulling together for an American.”
“If he ever worried that he’d been forgotten, I think this will provide Paul reassurance that he remains in people’s prayers,” the family statement read.