President Biden met with the sister of Paul Whelan on Wednesday after Russia rejected the latest deal to release the former U.S. Marine and bring him home.
The White House said in a statement that Biden held a private meeting with Elizabeth Whelan to discuss the administration’s efforts to bring her brother home. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was also present.
“Immediately following the meeting, the President called the parents of Paul Whelan,” the White House said.
“Since the beginning of the administration, the President has been personally engaged in the effort to secure the release of Americans held hostages and wrongfully detained around the world, including Paul Whelan and fellow American Evan Gershkovich.,” the statement added.
In early December, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters that the United States had made “a new and significant proposal to secure Paul and Evan’s release,” but “that proposal was rejected by Russia,” according to CBS News.
The State Department noted that Dec. 28, 2023 marked five years since Russian authorities wrongfully detained Whelan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed calls for the release of Whelan and Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, at his annual press conference in Moscow last month.
“As for the possible extradition of these citizens [Gershkovich and Paul Whelan] to their homeland.… You say, why don’t they return to their homeland? Then shouldn’t they not commit crimes on the territory of the Russian Federation?” he said, according to Reuters. “But this is all rhetoric. It’s not that we would refuse to return them. We didn’t refuse. We want to reach an agreement, and these agreements must be mutually acceptable and suit both parties. We have contacts with our American partners on this matter, and dialogue is ongoing on this matter. It is not simple, I will not go into details now … I hope we find a solution. But, I repeat, the American side must hear us and make an appropriate decision, one that suits the Russian side.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also reportedly blamed the White House for apparent leaks to U.S. media, saying publicity was hampering negotiations.
Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan and former U.S. Marine, has been jailed in Russia since his December 2018 arrest on espionage-related charges that both he and the U.S. government dispute. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison. In November, Whelan’s family said he was attacked by a fellow prisoner on a production line in a labor camp.
Gershkovich, 32, was detained in March 2023 while on a reporting trip to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, about 1,200 miles east of Moscow. He was accused of espionage and has been detained ever since. A Moscow court last month again rejected his appeal for pre-trial release, extending his detention to at least Jan. 30, 2024.
At least two U.S. citizens arrested in Russia in recent years, including WNBA star Brittney Griner, have been exchanged for Russians jailed in the U.S.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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