Family Of Ex-Marine Left Behind In Russia ‘Devastated’ After Brittney Griner Released In High-Level Prisoner Swap

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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The family of the ex-Marine jailed in Russia since 2021 is “devastated” after he was excluded from a high-level prisoner swap Thursday morning that saw jailed basketball star Brittney Griner freed, according to a statement.

Russian authorities detained Paul Whelan, an ex-marine working as a security contractor, in 2018 on what the U.S. said were fabricated espionage charges and sentenced him in 2020 to 16 years in prison. While the Biden administration initially attempted to secure the release of both Whelan and Griner for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “merchant of death,” Whelan was not included in Thursday’s diplomatic exchange.

“Our family is still devastated,” Whelan’s brother, David, said in an emailed statement to CBS News. “I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns … his hopes had soared with the knowledge that the U.S. government was taking concrete steps for once toward his release.”

It is likely the U.S. government has little in the way of offerings that would persuade Russia to give up Paul, David Whelan said. (RELATED: ‘Quiet Diplomacy’: Russia Rips US For Making Griner Prisoner Swap Public Ahead Of Midterms)

However, the Biden administration chose rightly in bringing Griner home without Paul Whelan, David said in the statement. It made “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

“We never forgot about Brittney, and we’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” President Joe Biden said in remarks upon Griner’s release. “This was not a choice about which American to bring home.”

U.S. officials alerted the Whelan family that the latest round of diplomacy had failed to free the prisoner, David Whelan said in the statement.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken had urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to release Whelan and former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was sentenced to a nine-year imprisonment last year for assaulting Russian police officers, in May. However, only Reed returned to America after an April 2022 prisoner swap for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a cocaine smuggler then in the midst of a 20-year sentence in U.S. custody.

“It is clear the U.S. government needs to be more assertive,” said David Whelan. “How can you continue to survive, day after day, when your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison?”

Moscow accused Paul Whelan of being in possession of a thumb drive carrying classified information, Reuters reported. Whelan claimed subversive operators set him up with the flash drive, which he believed contained holiday pictures from a Russian acquaintance.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed the conviction as “appalling” and in violation of due process, as the trial was conducted in secret and without proper witness testimony.

“It’s pretty simple. There was no crime. There was no evidence. The secret trial was a sham,” Whelan told CNN in 2021. “This was done purely for political motive.”

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