In-Depth: Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) introduced this resolution to call on the Russian Federation to provide evidence of wrongdoing or else release United States citizen Paul Whelan (who is a resident of Rep. Stevens’s district). After this resolution passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Stevens said:
“The Foreign Affairs Committee moved quickly and unanimously to advance this important resolution and this is a good thing. For months, we have asked for the Russian government to give Paul Whelan a fair and transparent judicial process to no avail. It is unacceptable that Paul has been held for so long without full consular access and without being able to speak to his family, all while his health continues to deteriorate. If Russia cannot produce any evidence after keeping an American citizen detained for nine months, they should release him immediately and let him come home and get the medical care he needs.”
At this resolution’s markup in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) said in his opening statement:
“H.Res 552 calls on the Russian government to provide evidence or release Mr. Whelan so he can come home to the United States and receive the proper medical treatment he so urgently needs. Every day he spends in that Russian prison is yet another day spent suffering. This is yet another reminder of the kind of leader Putin is—and something we should all keep in mind. I strongly support this measure and I want to thank Representative Stevens for her hard work to seek justice for Paul Whelan and his family.”
This resolution unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee with the support of 17 bipartisan House cosponsors, including 10 Democrats and seven Republicans. Its Senate companion, sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), has two Democratic Senate cosponsors.
Of Note: American citizen Paul Whelan has been detained since Russia since his arrest on December 29, 2018. He was in Russia for a friend’s wedding. The Russian Federation accuses Whelan of spying and maintains that those claims have not been denied by the U.S. Russian officials allege that Whelan was caught carrying a flash drive containing classified information. This could carry a sentence of up to 20 years.
At a press briefing, state-run media reported that Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, said, “The fact of Whelan’s spying activities has been properly documented, and, remarkably, it has never been refuted by U.S. officials during our working contacts.”
Whelan denies being a spy. He claims he was “set up” by a longtime acquaintance employed by Russian security services. In a September 2019 court hearing, Whelan said it is “ridiculous” to claim he has ties to U.S. intelligence and said, “This case is an absurd provocation. No evidence of crime exists.” He has also called himself the victim of “an absurd political kidnapping."
Whelan’s siblings have been working multiple angles to secure his release. His brother David Whelan says, “Paul is isolated and ill, deprived of any norms of due process and basic human rights. He's done nothing wrong and he should come home now.” In mid-October 2019, Axios reported that Trump’s former former Pennsylvania campaign director, David Urban, will be joining efforts to secure Whelan’s release by working pro-bono for his family.
Paul Whelan has asked for a public sign of support from the U.S. administration or for President Donald Trump to take a personal interest in his case. However, this has been to no avail. Expressing his disappointment about President Trump not raising Whelan’s detainment with Russian President Vladimir Puting at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, David Whelan said, “[T]o not have a public statement of support that Paul is wrongfully detained in Russia is hard to bear."
Reports have emerged of Whalen’s declining health and poor treatment in imprisonment. In July 2019, David Whelan said his brother needed a doctor who can speak to him in English and communicate with him about his health conditions in order to get an actual assessment of his condition. He said that at present, his brother was “only getting a first-aid level of help inside the prison."
On August 23, 2019, an ambulance was called to a Moscow courtroom after Whelan said he’d been injured by a prison guard who forced him to move heavy personal belongings to a new cell. Then, in September 2019, Whelan’s attorney, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said that doctors at Moscow's Hospital #20 confirmed that Whelan was suffering from a hernia. While the hernia wasn’t at an acute stage, doctors offered surgery. However, according to Zherebenkov, Whelan refused the surgery due to mistrust of Russian doctors, choosing instead to manage the pain with medication provided by prison administrators. In October 2019, David Whelan told Polygraph.info that the hernia is becoming more severe, as his brother had missed a previously scheduled surgery.
Both Whelan’s family and his lawyer say his ability to communicate with his family has been limited. Although Russian law allows detainees at least one phone call a month with their families, David Whelan says that his brother has been denied that right:
“Paul sought phone call access, but that was denied by FSB investigator Aleksei Khishnyak. We don't think that it would be safe for us to visit Russia while he is in prison, and we have no other way to communicate with him.”
Zherebenkov notes the barriers to both phone and email communication:
“Because there are no translators at Lefortovo, it is impossible to control what Paul will be talking about with his relatives. Due to such technical reasons, there has not been a single phone call, and there is no such possibility in the future. There is a complication with Paul's mail correspondence with the family due to censorship and translation. There are no translators at Lefortovo, so the warden receives the letters. He then sends them to the FSB investigator, and the investigator sends them to the translator. Then, the entire process repeats in reverse order. This takes up to two months.”
State Dept. officials have repeatedly called on Russia to either produce evidence of Whelan’s alleged crime or release him from custody. On his last day as President Trump’s ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman urged Russia to free Whelan after visiting him at Lefortovo prison in Moscow. Huntsman called for Whelan’s immediate release due to his deteriorating health and prosecutors’ lack of evidence, saying, “I don’t think it makes sense to speculate about politics or the specifics of the case. My main concern is that Paul Whelan has been in prison for nine months without any evidence.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Motortion)