WNBA star Brittney Griner released in prisoner swap with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout
CHICAGO -- Detained American Paul Whelan told CNN he is "disappointed" the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release, meaning he's been left behind in Russia after fellow detained American Brittney Griner was freed on Thursday.
"I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred," he said in an exclusive phone call from the penal colony where he is being held in a remote part of Russia. "I don't understand why I'm still sitting here."
Whelan said he was happy that Griner was released but told CNN he "was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon."
When asked if he was surprised not to have been included in the swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, he told CNN he was.
Whelan, a former marine who is a U.S., Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial U.S. officials denounced as unfair.
US officials have indicated that the Russians refused to release him despite U.S. efforts at negotiations, and Whelan said he was told that because the Russians have accused him of being a spy, "they've put me at a level higher than what they did with Trevor (Reed) and Brittney."
"That raises a lot of concerns because none of it is true. And they're trying to get out of United States, what the United States may not be able to provide, but this is basically political extortion," he said.
He said he was aware that he was considered in a different category than Griner -- "the Russians have always said so."
"They've always considered me to be at a higher level than other criminals of my sort and for whatever reason, I'm treated differently than another individual here from a Western country that's also on a charge of espionage. So even though we're both here for espionage, I'm treated much differently than he is, and my treatment is also much different than others held for espionage at other prisons," Whelan said.
Whelan said he hopes that President Joe Biden and his administration "would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point."
"I would say that if a message could go to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly," he said.
"My bags are packed. I'm ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me," he said.
Whelan said he would like to speak to Biden directly, noting he had spoken to an administration official earlier in the day about the situation, but "I think that message really needs to go to people like the president so they understand personally what I'm dealing with and what we deal with in these foreign prisons and under these circumstances."
"It's quite obvious that I'm being held hostage," he said.
Whelan expressed concern that he might not make it back to the United States, noting he has 12 years left in his prison sentence.
Biden acknowledged the Whelan family on Thursday, saying that the prisoner swap for Griner was "not a choice of which American to bring home."
"Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's," Biden said. "And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up. We will never give up."
National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said later on Thursday that the US is "not back to square one" in its negotiations for Whelan's release.
"We have been in active discussions with the Russians on Mr. Whelan's case for a very, very long time. Certainly those conversations accelerated in recent months and I can assure you that we are going to stay at those active discussions going forward," Whelan told CNN's Kate Bolduan.
Earlier on Thursday, Paul Whelan's brother David said his family is "devastated" and expressed concern about his brother once again being left behind.
"It's a great day for the families of the wrongfully detained and we feel wonderful for them," David Whelan said on "CNN This Morning." "But we do worry about what's in Paul's future. I think it's become clear that the US doesn't have any concessions that the Russian government wants for Paul. So I'm not really sure what the future holds."
In an earlier statement, David Whelan said the family is "devastated" that Paul remains in Russia.
"Despite the possibility that there might be an exchange without Paul, our family is still devastated. I can't even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly 4 years of this injustice," he said in the statement.
The-CNN-Wire & 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.