Next week, in Mordovia, western Russia, in penal colony IK-17, American prisoner Paul Whelan will celebrate his 54th birthday. It will be the sixth birthday Mr. Whelan has spent behind bars since his arrest on espionage charges on a visit to Russia in 2018.

For the Whelan family, including his sister, Chappaquiddick-based artist Elizabeth Whelan, the date is another milestone in the long fight to free their brother, an effort which has become more complex as relations between the U.S. and Russia have worsened.  

“I don’t think any of us can really believe that we’re on the sixth year of Paul’s wrongful detention.” Ms. Whelan said, in an interview with the Gazette. “There’s no doubt that things get more and more complicated as time goes on.”

With the death in prison of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny on Feb. 16, the danger to political prisoners in Russia has again come into stark relief for the family.

“The real big difference between Paul’s situation and the situation of other Russian political prisoners is no one’s likely to do something to him on purpose,” said Paul’s brother David Whelan, “but there’s still a level of neglect in the Russian prison system.”

Last year, David noted, Paul was injured after being struck by a fellow inmate.

There has been little progress on efforts to free Paul since December of 2022, when the U.S. exchanged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested after bringing marijuana to Russia. Paul Whelan was at first included in those exchange negotiations, but ultimately left out.

The failure to return Paul to the states, David said, is not from lack of trying. 

“From President [Joe] Biden on down, everybody has engaged in trying to bring Paul home,” he said, “but unfortunately…until President Putin also wants to send him home, it really doesn’t matter how much effort the US government puts into it.”

Ms. Whelan said she has remained in constant contact with the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. She also met with President Biden for the second time in January of this year, while Paul recently had a phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“The President is very well versed, not only in Paul’s case and [Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich’s] case, but also just in this entire issue of wrongful detention,” she said, adding that the Kremlin has apparently shown little interest in negotiations. 

“Even though there were Russians in American jails, the Russians don’t seem to be all that keen on having them back,” she said. “Our ability to negotiate, our leverage, is not as high as it was when Paul was first taken.”

An offer the administration put forward in November was rejected by the Kremlin, Ms. Whelan said. Paul is now serving the sixth year of a 16-year sentence. 

“We’re hoping, obviously, that it won’t go that long, but you know, we were hoping a few years ago that we would get him out as well,” she said. 

For now, Ms. Whelan encouraged people to contact their congressional representatives to push for Paul’s release. She also said her brother is periodically able to receive letters sent to the American Embassy in Moscow. 

“What I tell people is just write, even though you’re not sure when and if he will get the letters because when he does, it makes a huge difference to him to know that people are still fighting for him,” she said.

Letters to Paul Whelan can be sent to: 

American Citizen Services/PNW

Consular Section

5430 Moscow Place

Department of State

Washington, DC 20521-5430