Jun 2, 2021 - World

U.S. citizen imprisoned in Russia calls on Biden to raise issue at Putin summit

Paul Whelan behind a set of bars.

Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Paul Whelan, the American businessman imprisoned in Russia on spying charges, called on President Biden to resolve the issue of U.S. citizens being detained for political reasons during his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin this month.

Why it matters: Whelan's message, delivered during an interview with CNN from a Russian labor camp, comes ahead of an early test for Biden's promise to hold Moscow to account for its abuses.

  • The June 16 summit in Geneva comes amid heightened tensions between the two countries, exacerbated by Russia's cyber activities, jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and aggression toward Ukraine, among other things.

What they're saying: "This is not an issue of Russia against me; it's an issue of Russia against the United States, and the United States needs to answer this hostage diplomacy situation and resolve it as quickly as possible," Whelan told CNN.

  • Whelan said the U.S. needs to take "decisive action" to stop U.S. citizens from being taken as foreign prisoners.
  • He called the upcoming summit "a good step in the right direction," and added that he knows Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken "are working towards my release and return home."
  • Blinken "called on Russia to release Paul Whelan" and Trevor Reed, another American being held in Russia, during a call with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in May, per a White House readout.

Background: The U.S. denounced Whelan's sentencing to 16 years in prison on an espionage charge last year as a violation of human rights and international legal norms, saying prosecutors produced no evidence of his guilt. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who is also an Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was first detained in 2018 and has denied the charges.

  • "It's pretty simple. There was no crime. There was no evidence. The secret trial was a sham," Whelan said in the interview. "This was done purely for political motive."
  • "The more people that understand that I'm innocent, and that no crime of espionage ever occurred, the better."
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