American Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges that he and the U.S. government have long dismissed as spurious, has made a rare appearance in a video broadcast by Russian state media. In a piece aired Monday by the Kremlin-backed Russia Today (RT) network, Whelan is seen in black overalls and a black hat in a penal colony in the Mordovia region.
The former U.S. Marine was arrested in Russia in 2018 and convicted in 2020 on espionage charges, which he denies. He’s served nearly five years of his 16-year sentence.
Sitting at a sewing machine folding green strips of material, the bespectacled U.S. national is asked by a voice off camera, “How many did you do today?”
“100,” Whelan replies in Russian.
“100 units already, and what’s the norm?” asks the voice.
“80,” says Whelan.
“Good job,” the voice replies, “production leader.”
Whelan is then approached by an English-speaking RT reporter for an interview:
“Sir, you understand when I say that I can’t do an interview, which means that I can’t answer any questions,” Whelan tells him. He is later pictured in the prison yard talking to fellow inmates and eating in the cafeteria.
“Today was the first time I’ve seen what he really looks like since June 2020,” Whelan’s brother David Whelan said in a statement seen by CBS News. “So thank you, Russia Today, because although your reporting is the worst sort of propaganda and you are the mouthpiece for war criminals, at least I could see what Paul looks like after all of these years.”
David said in the emailed statement that when his brother declined a previous interview request from RT in May, “prison staff retaliated against him after he didn’t participate.”
“I wish I could see Paul under better circumstances. But it was good to see him again and to see the fight remains in his eyes,” wrote his brother. “It is good to know Paul remains unbowed.”
The Biden administration has classified Whelan as being “wrongfully detained” by Russia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with the imprisoned Whelan in mid-August, telling him to “keep the faith” and promising that the U.S. government was “doing everything we can to bring you home as soon as possible,” according to a source familiar with the call who spoke with CBS News.
The call came after U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy was allowed to meet with another American detained in Russia, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, at Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison. Tracy said Gershkovich “continues to appear in good health and remains strong, despite his circumstances,” according to a State Department spokesperson.
The ambassador last visited Gershkovich, who was arrested on unsubstantiated espionage charges, in July, after months of protests by the U.S. that diplomatic officials were being denied access to him. Gershkovich, his employer and U.S. officials have dismissed the charges against him as baseless, too.
The U.S. has been trying to negotiate the release of Whelan and Gershkovich, whom the U.S. has also designated as being wrongfully detained, but national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in July that the discussions “have not produced a clear pathway to a resolution.”
President Biden said last month that he was “serious” about pursuing a prisoner exchange when asked about Gershkovich’s detention in Russia.
“I’m serious about doing all we can to free Americans being illegally held in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter, and that process is underway,” Mr. Biden told reporters during a news conference in Helsinki, Finland.
The U.S. carried out prisoner swaps with Russia in 2022 to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who were both wrongfully detained in Russia after Whelan’s arrest.
Whelan and his family have voiced concern that he could be left behind again as the U.S. also seeks the release of Gershkovich.
Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the U.S. State Department, said in June that a phone call from Whelan after Griner’s release was “one of the toughest phone calls” he has ever had.
“At 9:30 in the morning, Paul Whelan called me from Russia. He was allowed to make a phone call and I had to spend 30 minutes on the phone telling him what happened and why we were unable to get him out at that time,” Carstens said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.
“And I said, ‘Paul, the Russians gave us one deal. It was Brittney, or no one,'” Carstens said. “‘There was no opportunity to get you out. And we’re not going to stop. My foot is on the gas pedal. We’re going 110 miles an hour. We will not relent until we bring you home.'”
Ivan Kashchenko contributed to this report.