Paul Whelan, an American the Biden administration considers to be wrongfully detained by the Russian government, was able to call his parents on Friday, providing some relief following a period of silence that left officials “deeply concerned” for his well-being.
Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence on espionage charges he denies, was able to wish his father a belated happy birthday during the early morning conversation, though he did not say why he was at the hospital prison, according to a statement from his brother, David.
David regularly provides updates on his brother’s status to reporters, alerting them earlier this week that Paul had told his family to “alert the U.S. Embassy” if he “doesn’t call home for more than three days.”
“He did not say why he was there, but did say he would call again later, and our parents think he is returning to IK-17 today,” David wrote of his brother. “So the call at least acts as a ‘proof of life,’ even if nothing else has been explained: when Paul went there, why, why the calls stopped, why the US Embassy had to seek information about his whereabouts and the Russian authorities refused to respond, etc.”
The White House is trying to get more information on his whereabouts, an official said during a briefing on Wednesday.
“We have been trying to get more information about Mr. Whelan’s condition and his whereabouts. And as we speak this morning, regrettably, we do not have an update specifically about where he is or what condition he’s in,” White House National Security Council coordinator John Kirby explained. “That deeply concerns us, and we certainly share the anxiety and the concern of the land and family,” he added. “We are deeply concerned about the lack of information and the lack of contact from Paul, and we’re working on it as hard as we can through the diplomatic channels.”
Whelan has been included in negotiations between Russia and the U.S. for a prisoner exchange, as has WNBA superstar Brittney Griner, who was arrested last February and pleaded guilty to drug charges in August and is now serving a nine-year prison sentence. The administration also considers Griner to be wrongfully detained.
The State Department revealed in July that the administration had made a “substantial proposal” to get them home, and while the administration hasn’t commented on the details of the offer, it’s been widely reported that it included the release of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has been nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” for selling arms to sanctioned human rights abusers in various African nations.
U.S. officials have accused Kremlin officials of not responding to the offer seriously.
“We have made a serious proposal that reflects our intention to take action to free American prisoners,” Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Moscow, said earlier this week. “We did not see a serious response from the Russian side to our proposal.”