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President Biden pledges to continue to try to win the release of Michigan man from Russian prison

Russia has granted U.S. consular officials access to Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia on suspicion of spying. Whelan appears here in a photo provided by the Whelan family.
Courtesy of the Whelan Family
Paul Whelan of Novi, Michigan was arrested in Russia on spying charges in 2018.

President Joe Biden says the U.S. will continue to seek the release of Novi’s Paul Whelan from a Russian prison. The 52-year-old Michigan man is imprisoned on spying charges. Whelan denies the charges.

The Biden administration has been seeking Whelan’s release along with WNBA star Brittney Griner. Griner was released Thursday in a prisoner exchange.

Russia freed Griner as the U.S. released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The deal, the second in eight months amid tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, secured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad and achieved a top policy goal for President Joe Biden. But it carried what U.S. officials described as a heavy price.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home," Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner's wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.

Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Baylor University All-American and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, whose arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad.

Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are baseless.

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” said Biden in a Thursday news conference. “While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”

Paul Whelan’s brother David issued a statement after Brittney Griner’s release was announced.

“As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays,” David Whelan wrote.

But he lamented his brother remains in a Russian prison cell.

“It will be the fourth Christmas Mum and Dad live through without Paul. They will be 85 and 83 on the fourth anniversary of his detention,” wrote David Whelan. “Time is Paul's, and our, enemy. The likelihood that our parents will see their son again diminishes each day his wrongful detention continues. Increasingly, I worry that Paul himself won't survive 12 more years in a Russian labor colony.”

Paul Whelan spent time last month in a Russian prison hospital.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
The Associated Press is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting.