WASHINGTON (Reuters)—President Joe Biden said Thursday that the United States will never give up on negotiating for Paul Whelan’s release from Russia, but the prisoner swap involving American basketball star Brittney Griner leaves few options.
“Sadly and for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” Biden said.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, is serving 16 years in the Russian region of Mordovia on charges of espionage, which he denies. He was detained in 2018 and convicted two years later.
Paul’s brother, David Whelan, welcomed Griner’s release, but said it did not bode well for his brother. The Biden administration let the Whelan family know in advance that he would not be released along with Griner, David Whelan said.
“That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul,” he said in a statement.
Griner was released in exchange for the release of arms dealer Viktor Bout, a transaction that may leave the United States little leverage to negotiate for Whelan.
“So a basketball star is released, we can celebrate, but what about Paul Whelan? An American unjustly detained for years. May not be high profile but he is innocent,” Republican lawmaker Adam Kinzinger said on Twitter. “Surely an arms dealer is worth two innocent people?”
U.S. officials said that Moscow left them no choice.
“Ultimately, as it became clear that the choice was, as I’ve emphasized: that it was bringing Brittney Griner home right now or bringing no American home right now,” a senior administration official told reporters.
Biden said officials were in touch with Whelan’s family.
“We’ll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release. I guarantee that,” he said.
Biden has personally tracked the negotiations on getting both Griner and Whelan home for months, the U.S. official said.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose, Moira Warburton and Doina Chiacu; editing by Heather Timmons, Chizu Nomiyama and Nick Macfie)
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