Paul Whelan Calls Home For the First Time In Nearly Two Weeks, Family Says

Paul Whelan’s family has been reliving the distress of the early days following his arrest in Moscow in 2018 since another American, the reporter Evan Gershkovich, was also detained on espionage charges, his brother said on Tuesday.

Mr. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, is serving a 16-year prison sentence on what the United States says are fabricated charges of espionage. His twin brother, David, and his sister, Elizabeth, have campaigned for his release, and called on the Biden administration to do more to secure his freedom.

That Mr. Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was also arrested by Russian state security services, accused of espionage and denied consular access while in jail has been “almost like reliving Paul’s case right from the start,” David Whelan said, adding that he could not imagine what Mr. Gershkovich’s family was experiencing.

“The last couple of weeks, I’ve been sleeping terribly,” he said. “I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and I wonder — is that just because I’m not doing well right here? Or is that because Paul is not doing well where he is?”

Mr. Whelan was able to speak to his parents for the first time in nearly two weeks on Monday, David Whelan said in an email update to supporters on Tuesday. He wrote that the family had been led to believe erroneously that Mr. Whelan had been moved to a prison hospital, while he was actually sequestered within IK-17, the penal colony where he is serving his sentence, about an eight-hour drive outside of Moscow.

“The prison administration claims that the phones have been out of order from March 30 through to April 9th or 10th,” David Whelan wrote. “Russia’s infrastructure appears so brittle it could be true,” he said, while leaving open the possibility that the prison was limiting access.

Mr. Whelan was made aware that Russia had detained another American, Mr. Gershkovich, while he was out of contact, and fears “being left behind a third time,” David Whelan said, referring to the cases of Brittney Griner and Trevor Reed, two other Americans who were detained in Russia and released separately last year in prisoner swaps.

Mr. Whelan’s family rejoiced after both releases, but said his continued detention made them question whether his case was truly a priority for the Biden administration.

The family understood that Russia considered Ms. Griner’s drug charges and Mr. Reed’s assault charges to be less serious than the espionage charges Mr. Whelan faces, David Whelan said. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said last year that Russian officials were treating Mr. Whelan’s case differently, and had refused to include him in the prisoner swap that freed Ms. Griner in December.

“Now, we are at a point where we see a case that’s identical to Paul’s,” David Whelan said in a phone interview, adding that whatever might resolve an espionage case like Mr. Gershkovich’s should also resolve Mr. Whelan’s.

“I think if he’s left behind again, it would be — ‘disappointing’ isn’t even close to the word that I would use,” David Whelan said.

The State Department has designated both Mr. Gershkovich and Mr. Whelan “wrongfully detained,” meaning they are effectively considered political hostages. But it remains unclear whether a prisoner swap could be negotiated for their release, because the United States is not known to have a Russian spy in custody that would allow for a purportedly equivalent trade.

Some sort of tripartite approach with Western allies that do have Russian spies in custody might be possible, David Whelan said, though he noted that the family was not aware of the details of any efforts the Biden administration might be considering.

“I would be happy for the U.S. government to make whatever concessions they can to bring Paul home,” he added.

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