Rare new video has emerged showing detained American Paul Whelan, who has been held in Russia for more than four years, inside his prison camp.
The video, released by Russian state-controlled news agency Russia Today (RT), shows Whelan wearing a Russian prison uniform in different parts of the prison, with shots of him using a sewing machine and eating in a cafeteria.
At one point in the video, he tells a reporter from the Kremlin-backed media outlet, “You understand when I say that I can’t do an interview, which means I can’t answer any questions.”
Whelan – who has US, Irish, British and Canadian citizenship – was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation.
The former United States Marine was sentenced to 16 years in prison on an espionage charge he vehemently denies. “I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he told CNN during an exclusive interview last year. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
After the release of the RT video, David Whelan said in a statement that it “was the first time” that he’d seen what his brother “really looks like since June 2020.” The RT crew had showed up at the prison to film his brother in May and “prison staff retaliated against him after he didn’t participate” in an interview, he said.
“I wish I could see Paul under better circumstances,” he said in the statement, “but it was good to see him again and to see the fight remains in his eyes. It is good to know Paul remains unbowed.”
David Whelan told CNN’s Erica Hill on “OutFront” Tuesday that the family had not yet heard from the White House about the video, but that he would “take at face value what the press secretary said today, which is that they will continue to work for Paul’s release, and hopefully that will come sooner than later.”
Seeing the video, he added, was “valuable” for his family, telling Hill: “If you turn off the volume and look at Paul, I think you get a sense of how resilient he has been, and also a sense of what his life has been like in the prison, so for our family I think it was very valuable to see it.”
Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Whelan, who the US government deems wrongfully detained, according to a source familiar with the call.
The US was unable to secure Whelan’s release in prisoner swaps that brought home two other wrongfully detained Americans last year: Trevor Reed in April and Brittney Griner in December.
The Biden administration has put forth proposals for Whelan’s release, but Russia has not responded in a substantive way, two administration officials told CNN.
His sister Elizabeth Whelan told CNN’s Isa Soares Tuesday she felt lucky that “the US took the lead to try and get him out,” adding that “not every country is as forward leaning in terms of trying to help their citizens when they’ve been wrongfully detained.”
The lack of response to the Biden administration’s offer, and the wrongful detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich earlier this year, have forced the US to continue searching for another offer to put on the table, said one senior administration official – despite the US still considering its existing Whelan proposal a live offer.
The Biden administration continues to scour the globe for offers that could entice Russia to release both of the wrongfully detained Americans, as CNN reported earlier this year. The US does not currently have any high-level Russian spies in its custody, current and former US officials say, driving the need to turn to allies for help.
Elizabeth Whelan told CNN Tuesday that during her brother’s phone call with Blinken a couple of weeks ago, he received “reassurance that everything is being done that is possible at this time.”
In another exclusive phone call to CNN in May, Whelan said he was confident that his case is a priority for the US government but wishes it could be resolved faster. He also expressed concerns he could be left behind again if the US secures Gershkovich’s release.