May 4, 2023 - World

U.S. ambassador visits Paul Whelan in Russian penal colony

Paul Whelan, a former US marine who has been jailed in Russia since December 2018 on charges of espionage, in a defendants' cage in a Moscow courtroom in June 2020.

Paul Whelan, a former US marine who has been jailed in Russia since December 2018 on charges of espionage, in a defendants' cage in a Moscow courtroom in June 2020. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Image

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy visited U.S. citizen Paul Whelan in a remote Russian penal colony on Thursday, according to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Why it matters: It marked Tracy's first visit with Whelan, a former Marine who has been jailed in Russia since being arrested by on espionage charges in December 2018. The U.S. has rejected the charges against Whelan and has accused Russia of wrongfully detaining him.

Driving the news: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) also issued a rare joint statement on Thursday calling on Russian authorities to release Whelan and Gershkovich.

  • “The persecution of Gershkovich is part of a disturbing practice by Putin’s Russia of kidnapping American citizens and using Soviet-style show trials to unjustly imprison them," the statement reads.
  • "Today, the Kremlin not only holds Gershkovich hostage, it continues to unjustly imprison Paul Whelan. Russia must release Gershkovich and Whelan now.”

What they're saying: The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said Tracy visited Whelan at IK-17 prison, a labor camp roughly 270 miles southeast of Moscow in the Mordovia region.

  • "Paul has been wrongfully detained in Russia for more than 4 years, and his release remains an absolute priority," the embassy said. "The U.S. government will continue to engage Russian authorities on his case so Paul can come home as soon as possible."

David Whelan, Paul Whelan's twin brother, told Axios in a statement that "Paul says that the conditions at the camp continue to deteriorate."

  • David Whelan said his brother has said that prisoners are no longer receiving meat or fresh fruits and vegetables with their meals and medical care is being withdrawn as well.
  • "Paul said that they are only provided with plasters (like band-aids) and are not provided over-the-counter or other medicines, even when prisoners have paid for them and had them delivered by family," David Whelan said, adding that dental care in the camp has also been eliminated, "so any dental problems are solved by extractions only."

The big picture: Russian authorities accused Whelan of possessing a flash drive that contained classified information, a claim he and his family have said are false.

  • Whelan and his family have argued the charge was political and that he was set up by a Russian border guard who owed Whelan money.
  • In June 2020, a Russian court sentenced Whelan, a 53-year-old corporate security executive who is also a citizen of the United Kingdom, Canada and Ireland, to 16 years in prison.
  • The U.S. denounced the trial against Whelan as a violation of human rights and international legal norms because prosecutors produced no evidence of his guilt.
  • The Biden administration attempted to secure the release of both Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner together in a swap with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in December 2022.
  • After only Griner was released in the exchange, Biden administration officials said Russian authorities were treating Whelan's case "very separately, very distinctly" because of the espionage charges they levied against him but pledged to continue negotiating for his release.

The State Department in 2022 urged Americans to leave Russia "immediately" because of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and later warned that the Russian government may be intentionally seeking out Americans for detention.

Go deeper: U.S. sanctions Russian and Iranian security services for "holding Americans hostage"

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