WNBA star Brittney Griner’s case has raised awareness of Russian detainee Paul Whelan and others held overseas

As former US Marine Paul Whelan toiled in a Russian prison labor camp for more than three years, his family wondered what it would take to keep the public interested in his case.

At times, media attention swept by like a searchlight: when he was arrested and charged with espionage in December 2018, when he was on trial 18 months later, when he was sentenced to 16 years, when the US government said he have been wrongfully imprisoned.

And then came the case of another American woman arrested and jailed in Russia in February, WNBA star Brittney Griner. Suddenly the name Paul Whelan was popping up everywhere.

“Brittney Griner’s supporters and advocates have also been vocal in demanding Paul’s release. That generosity, that grace, has resulted in more people being aware of Paul’s case than ever before,” said David Whelan, Paul’s twin brother. “It seems like there was very little overlap between those who knew Paul’s case before and those who know him now.”

Their names are intertwined, with speculation the US government could broker a deal that will bring them home together.

But David and his sister Elizabeth Whelan say they doubt that will happen and they are prepared for the possibility that Griner, who pleaded guilty Thursday, could get home before him. They point out that almost nobody knows what’s really going on behind the scenes until one of them is on a plane home.

“People are like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be Brittney and Paul for such and such.’ There’s a very good chance we’ll get it wrong,” says Elizabeth Whelan.

They also say the 42 months since Paul Whelan’s arrest have taught them an agonizing lesson about what a family can and cannot do to bring a loved one home.

“Until your loved one gets home, you live day and night,” says Elizabeth Whelan. “There is no escape. It is extraordinary how a situation like this affects the whole life of a family.”

She was in the news this week when she said she was angry that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and replied to Brittney Griner’s letter with a letter of their own, saying it showed “favourability.” “.

Speaking on Friday, she said her anger isn’t with the Griners or Biden; In fact, hours after speaking to ESPN, President Biden called her to reassure her that he was determined to bring Paul home, the White House announced. Your problem is a system where everyone thinks the only way to bring a loved one home is to get an audience with the President of the United States.

“It’s a ridiculous situation. It’s untenable. He can’t see 55 families,” she says. And even if he hit everyone at once, what happens when other Americans are arrested?

Griner’s family and supporters have publicly pushed for a meeting with Biden, as have the parents of Trevor Reed, who served more than two years in a Russian prison. Reed’s parents got that meeting in March, and five weeks later he was sent home on a prisoner exchange.

“I know it sounds like sour grapes – it has nothing to do with the Reed and Griner families. “I don’t feel like I’m being denied [but] I want what everyone gets for Paul.

“What pissed me off is this whole idea that they protested, got their meeting and their loved one came home like there was some kind of formula. There are people in every department and every agency in government trying to get people home. A lot of this happens behind the scenes and not in public.”

When Reed was released, several US State Department sources went to great lengths to indicate that an acute health crisis had brought him home so quickly. His parents said he had untreated tuberculosis and was seriously injured in an accident. Officials insisted that the Reeds’ visit to Biden had nothing to do with his release. His followers argue differently.

Pressure from some families to speak to the White House, and the White House’s decision to meet with the Reeds and call Cherelle Griner, puts the focus “in the wrong places,” Elizabeth Whelan says.

“The focus should be on the fact that Russia is taking Americans hostage,” she says. “There is a tendency to direct our anger at the White House and Congress, whoever we can direct our anger at, rather than the Kremlin. After all, they were the ones who held Paul for three and a half years.”

Elizabeth Whelan received a call from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Thursday following her criticism of Biden’s phone call with Cherelle Griner. Though she declined to share details of her call, she said it put her mind at ease.

“He was basically assuring that, despite the president’s call and letter to Brittney, Paul’s efforts were by no means lost,” she says. “But you could understand how a family would feel. And not just my family. What will the Venezuelan families think? The people being held in China? I really think the President is a good man trying to be helpful.”

But the Whelans also say they understand that families have a human instinct to do as much as they can, even pushing to meet the president, rather than waiting patiently and trusting government officials to care as much as they do .

“You can see that some of them feel like they have to do something,” says David Whelan.

Elizabeth Whelan says Americans also don’t understand how complicated these negotiations can be.

“In America, we’re used to negotiations where each side has something they want, and they find something halfway between those groups,” she says. “When someone is holding someone hostage, they are doing it because they want something very dissimilar. They’re asking about someone who is a master criminal, or a policy or lifting of sanctions that’s just beyond the pale.

“There are things going on behind the scenes that nobody knows about and maybe never will. Unfortunately, families feel they need to contact the President because we don’t know enough about what’s going on. In some cases we don’t know. I don’t need to know the details, but I think a line can be drawn [where officials] can share more.”

Despite her criticism, Elizabeth Whelan says she’s grateful for the attention the Griners have brought to the issue. The White House has been questioned about her case nearly every day this week, and those questions resulted in a response that the administration is committed to bringing all those wrongfully detained home.

“It’s wonderful to see families taking a public stand and having the chutzpah to do things that raise awareness. It helps us all,” she says. “It helps people ask questions about all the other people who are being held. We never think badly about what another family is doing; any attention given to a loved one is helpful.”

Elizabeth Whelan says she sent Cherelle Griner a couple of emails offering to support her in any way she could and says the two spoke briefly at a James Foley Foundation event. David Whelan says the Whelans understand their anguish despite the families’ different approaches.

“I think in some ways her experience was so much more difficult than other families’ — not to say our loved ones didn’t suffer,” he says. “But she has to do it in a spotlight that none of us have endured in the same way.”

The Whelans say the increased attention to Paul’s case has been reassuring, largely because they don’t want him to be forgotten. But this surge of attention is not the same as progress, says David Whelan.

“I’m not sure what the behind-the-scenes impact it’s had on State Department staff and people like that,” he said.

Maybe the extra attention will help, but David Whelan says he still doesn’t think a deal to bring them home together is likely.

“Ms. Griner’s case might help, but for the most part I think the solutions can be different,” he says. “Based on my reading of the Russian media, Paul’s spying allegation is considered to be much more serious than a drug allegation. The Russians are looking for proportionality. They might be willing to release someone with a nine or 10 year sentence [as Griner might face] than someone with a 16-year sentence.”

They also warn of what they see as a misconception that diplomats are dealing with one entity when negotiating with Russia. On the US side, there is the US State Department’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs and former US Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, who has worked as a private to negotiate the release of imprisoned Americans. On the Russian side, you may be dealing with someone from the Kremlin or one of the ministries, a powerful oligarch, someone from the FSB or some other agency. The Russians negotiating Griner’s return are unlikely to be the ones negotiating Whelan’s return, the Whelans say.

It brings them both back to the sense of patience they say they must survive Paul’s detention.

“I’m prepared for Paul to be there for 16 years. I can absolutely imagine Paul being left behind a second time. And maybe even longer,” says David. “It’s hard to accept and hard to explain to my parents.”

But if the light of Brittney Griner’s story comes and goes with her return and not Paul’s, there will be some consolation, he says: “At least now there are more people who are aware that Paul is there and it’s, I think, will continue to advocate for his release.”

https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/34213515/wnba-star-brittney-griner-case-raised-awareness-russian-detainee-paul-whelan-others-held-overseas WNBA star Brittney Griner’s case has raised awareness of Russian detainee Paul Whelan and others held overseas

Emma Bowman

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