Politics|Detained for a Year, American Languishes in Russian Prison
WASHINGTON — An American tourist accused of espionage has been jailed in Russia for more than a year as his family members and lawmakers seek to step up pressure for his release.
The family of the American, Paul N. Whelan, says the Russian government is holding him in the hope of increasing his value in a potential trade for Russians imprisoned in the United States.
Relatives are now calling on Congress to penalize Moscow for its detention of Mr. Whelan, who was arrested last year while visiting Russia for a wedding. And lawmakers are pressing the Trump administration to escalate its efforts to secure his release.
Mr. Whelan’s arrest came shortly after a Russian citizen accused of trying to influence prominent Americans, Maria Butina, was imprisoned after pleading guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. Some officials had hoped that Mr. Whelan would be freed once Ms. Butina had served her sentence. But she returned to Russia in October, and Mr. Whelan’s detention has been extended at least until March.
In talks with American counterparts, Russian officials have mentioned the names of Russians held in the United States, including Viktor Bout, an arms dealer convicted of aiding a terrorist organization and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The United States has a policy of never identifying who is or is not a spy, to better protect people who are working overseas for the C.I.A. But there is no evidence that Mr. Whelan was working for an intelligence agency. American officials have broadly hinted that Mr. Whelan was just what he appeared to be: a somewhat naïve Russophile who was an innocent tourist.
“They are dragging out this whole detention and trial to create more value around Paul,” said Elizabeth Whelan, Mr. Whelan’s sister.
But Ms. Whelan said that Russian officials overestimated her brother’s importance on the geopolitical stage.
“Paul is not a particularly valuable guy in and of himself, and I say that lovingly as he is my brother,” Ms. Whelan said. “He is not the C.E.O. of Apple or something like that.”
Lawmakers from both parties have also doubled down on their defense of Mr. Whelan.
On Friday, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, posted on Twitter a call for Mr. Whelan’s release, and Senator Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, said that Mr. Whelan’s detention was “a political stunt by the Russians.”
“Enough is enough: The Russian government needs to let Paul go,” Mr. Peters said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has raised the matter with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov. But, perhaps to avoid escalating tensions with Moscow, the Trump administration has not classified Mr. Whelan as wrongfully detained, meaning he is not considered a hostage.
In September, Mr. Peters urged the White House to have the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs help secure Mr. Whelan’s release.
If a special envoy can be used to secure the release of the rapper ASAP Rocky, surely one can be used for Mr. Whelan, congressional staff members have said.
And Ms. Whelan said that without the help of the government’s hostage team establishing a “fusion cell,” it was hard to coordinate the government’s efforts. By visiting Washington each month, she said, she was trying to improve the flow of information among departments and Congress about her brother’s situation.
“Of course the difficulty is that I don’t work within the government and I can’t make things happen,” she said.
Mr. Whelan, a former Marine, was seized last December and accused of espionage-related crimes. At a court appearance this week, on Christmas Eve, he held up a sign reading, “I remain innocent! No espionage! No evidence!” At earlier court appearances, he has also repeatedly declared his innocence.
Mr. Whelan’s family and representatives said his health had declined during his time in prison. He was scheduled to have a hernia operation last February in the United States. That condition has worsened in prison.
He also recently lost his job when BorgWarner, an international auto parts manufacturer, laid him off, Ms. Whelan said.
In addition to his American passport, Mr. Whelan is a citizen of three other countries: Britain, Canada and Ireland. While the United States Embassy in Moscow has taken the lead in trying to secure his release, officials from all four countries have sought to assist him.
Ms. Whelan said she believed her brother would be brought to trial, perhaps this summer.
“It is theater at best. There is a 100 percent chance Paul will be sentenced as if he were really a spy,” Ms. Whelan said. “This entire drama is part of political positioning to extract some kind of concession.”