MOSCOW — The family of Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for spying, said on Friday they had reconnected after he unexpectedly became unreachable in November.
Along with WNBA star Brittney Griner, Whelan is at the center of US efforts to arrange a prisoner exchange with Russia.
The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States and who has previously been dubbed the “merchant of death”.
Whelan’s brother, David, said in an emailed statement that Paul called his parents early in the United States on Friday, the first time a family member had spoken to him since Nov. 23. The family had been informed that he had been transferred to a prison hospital. , but that the reason was unclear as he had not spoken of health issues.
During the call, he did not explain why he was in the hospital, but said he had received a “special dispensation” to call, indicating that he had been prohibited from calling before, said said David Whelan.
“So the call at least acts as ‘proof of life’ even if nothing else is explained,” he said.
Alexei Tyurkin, the chairman of the prison oversight commission for the Mordovia region where Whelan is incarcerated, said he was in the prison hospital for “planned treatment”, but did not give details. , according to the state news agency RIA-Novosti.
The State Department later said Whelan also spoke to U.S. consular officials and was discharged from the hospital to the penal colony itself.
Whelan, a former Marine who later worked as a corporate security officer, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018. His lawyer said Whelan was given a USB drive containing classified information he did not know.
Whelan was convicted in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in August for drug possession after vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage at a Moscow airport in February. His notoriety as an athlete, including two Olympic gold medals, brought attention to his case.
Asked by journalists on Tuesday about the possibility of an exchange before the end of the year, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov replied: “There is always a chance”.
“Unfortunately, there were a few occasions when it looked like a decision in his favor was about to be made, but that never happened,” Ryabkov said without giving further details.