Washington: Release of ex-Marines from Russian prisons is ‘vital priority’ for the US

Washington renewed calls for the release of former US Marine Paul Whelan on the third anniversary of his arrest in Moscow on dubious espionage charges.

“[Whelan] traveled to Russia as a tourist and was imprisoned and sentenced on false charges,” the US State Department said Tuesday. The statement called on the Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Whelan, along with Trevor Reed, another US citizen and former Marine, who has remained in custody since his August 2019 arrest on unrelated charges.

“Their release remains a vital priority for the United States,” the statement read.

Echoing the sentiment, US Congressman Michael McCaul [R-TX] said via Twitter: “The [regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s] use of innocent Americans as political pawns is abhorrent. … The U.S. Congress will not stop fighting on behalf of these men until they are both returned home.”

Whelan, 51, was detained on December 28, 2018, during a visit to the Russian capital to attend a wedding. That evening, a long-time acquaintance visited Whelan in his hotel room and gave him a flash drive. Russian authorities claim Whelan accepted the device with the understanding that it contained classified information. Whelan, a private-sector security employee, has countered that he believed the flash drive contained vacation photos. He was held in pre-trial detention for 18 months before being convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in a penal colony.

Several months later, Reed, 30, was detained based on allegations of public intoxication. Though authorities initially assured him he would be released the next morning, he was ultimately charged with assault and sentenced to nine years in prison.

To date, diplomatic efforts to reason with the Russian authorities over the Whelan and Reed cases appear to have fallen on deaf ears, with consular officials complaining of having struggled to obtain access to the detainees in contravention of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee called foul on these and other issues in a 2019 statement, asserting: “It is disgraceful that the Russian government is keeping Mr. Whelan from hiring an attorney, working with U.S. consular officials, and ensuring his family can take care of his affairs. Russia’s treatment of Mr. Whelan reflects a blatant disregard of international law, including the Vienna Convention, which very clearly enumerates the rights of detainees.”

The State Department’s latest travel advisory for Russia warns American travelers to bear these issues in mind when planning travel to the country. “Russian security services have arrested [US] citizens on spurious charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting evidence,” The advisory states, adding: “Russian officials may unreasonably delay U.S. consular assistance to detained U.S. citizens.”

US President Joe Biden brought up the issue last June during his historic summit with Putin in Geneva. “I raised the case of two wrongfully imprisoned American citizens: Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed,” Biden said at a press briefing following the meeting. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also brought up the issue with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, earlier this month.

Russian authorities are reportedly open to a prisoner swap, but have remained firm in their refusal to consider a unilateral release. In a February 2021 statement, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned the United States against “pressuring [Russia for] unilateral concessions.” In the same statement, Zakharova mentioned her concerns about the health and wellbeing of two high-profile Russian citizens who have been detained for years in the United States, including Viktor Bout, who is serving a sentence for various charges related to smuggling arms, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who is serving out a lengthy drug-smuggling sentence.