Paul Whelan’s brother has confirmed that the American, convicted of espionage, gave ‘proof of life’ in a telephone conversation.
The family of Paul Whelan, an American man imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, has confirmed that he has resumed contact with them after more than a week of silence that caused alarm in the White House.
Whelan’s brother David said in a statement that the former Marine called his family for the first time since Nov. 23 on Friday.
“So at least the call acts as a ‘proof of life’ even if nothing else is explained: when Paul went there, why, why the calls stopped, why the US embassy had to seek information on his whereabouts and the Russian authorities refused to respond, etc,” said David Whelan.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby repeated the news on Friday, saying that United States consulate personnel were also back in touch with Paul Whelan.
“I will not go into details about his health for privacy reasons, but I can tell you that he told consular officials that he was feeling well,” Kirby said.
On Wednesday, Kirby had said President Joe Biden’s administration was “deeply concerned” by Whelan’s silence.
Whelan is one of several US residents being held by Russia. Among them is also American basketball star Brittney Griner.
Whelan’s family had been told he had been transferred to a prison hospital, but the circumstances were unclear. Whelan had not previously reported any health problems.
In his statement on Friday, Kirby said U.S. consular officials indicated Whelan had been returned from the hospital to the prison colony in the Mordovia region, where he is serving a 16-year sentence.
Whelan is a former United States Marine who worked as a corporate security manager. According to his lawyer, Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 after being given a flash drive containing classified material he knew nothing about.
Whelan was convicted of espionage in 2020. His family insists he is innocent.
The US has pushed for a prisoner exchange that would bring home Whelan and Griner, who are serving a nine-year sentence for drug charges after authorities found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport. Griner was transferred to a penal colony in November.
The US has reportedly offered to release Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, currently serving a 25-year sentence in the US, in exchange for Griner and Whelan.
There is precedent for such an exchange: In April, Russia traded former US Marine Trevor Reed for Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence in the US for drug possession.
On Tuesday, reporters asked Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov if a trade before the end of the year was possible.
“There’s always a chance,” he said. “Unfortunately there have been a few times where it looked like a decision would be made in its favour, but that never happened.”