Nearly three years after her brother was detained in Moscow, Elizabeth Whelan is keeping her eye on the goal: bringing him home.
Paul Whelan, a US citizen and former Marine, was detained at a Moscow hotel on December 28, 2018, and arrested on espionage charges, which he has consistently and vehemently denied. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial denounced by US officials as unfair.
“It’s very difficult in the early months not to be completely consumed by the emotion of the situation, worrying about how your loved one is doing, worrying day and night, and it to the point of actually being unable to carry on your daily work or advocate properly,” Elizabeth Whelan said in an interview with CNN.
“And at some point, you realize that if you’re going to get your loved one home, that is not the way forward, that you have to be sensible and organized and keep your eye on the goal, which is Paul’s release.”
‘You have to make your presence known’
The entire Whelan family has become involved in trying to secure that end, she said. Her brother David acts as spokesperson, her brother Andrew handles Paul’s personal affairs and she has become a key interlocutor with officials in Washington. She noted that the family operates a GoFundMe page in order to supply Paul with “food, paper, clothing, everything.”
Elizabeth Whelan has made 16 trips to the nation’s capital over the course of her brother’s nearly three years in detention – a voyage that involves two ferries, a car, a bus and a train each way from Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, where she lives and works as an artist.
“An unfortunate component about advocating for someone who is wrongfully detained is you have to make your presence known. There’s always a crisis going on, and you have to keep reminding people that there is an American who is being held by a hostile foreign nation, often one that we have relations with of some sort, and that this situation has to end,” she told CNN.
She said she has gotten support from lawmakers, including those from Paul’s home state of Michigan like Democrats Rep. Haley Stevens and Sen. Gary Peters, and her Massachusetts Rep. Bill Keating. She also praised the work of Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens and his team, as well as US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan and the team at the US Embassy in Moscow.
“In terms of getting Paul home, we support whatever the United States government wants to do,” she told CNN, but noted that she would like to see the US government be more agile and quick in responding to wrongful-detention cases. And with tensions ratcheting up between the US and Russia, she is concerned about a potential impact on the case of her brother and Trevor Reed, another American detained there.
“We are very worried that our loved ones are going to get stuck behind enemy lines, basically, if we end up in a confrontation,” she said.
‘Bound and determined to survive’
She praised her brother’s perseverance, telling CNN that Paul Whelan “is bound and determined to survive this situation, and he is not going to give in to the Russians. He is not going to show weakness.”
She said he has faced retaliation from prison officials, including time in solitary confinement.
In a June call with CNN, he described the grim conditions of the remote labor camp where he spends his days working in a clothing factory that he called a “sweatshop.”
He said at the time that he had a lingering cough and bursitis in his elbow from the factory work, and told CNN that “getting medical care here is very difficult.”
He told CNN he was getting through his plight “day by day,” and was trying to keep “a positive mental attitude” about the situation.
He credited reading – his family has sent him thriller novels, his favorite genre – and writing letters to his family, friends and supporters with helping his mind “stay in the right place.” His family said he has written hundreds of letters over the course of his imprisonment.
His sister said phone conversations with their parents have played a critical role in helping keep his spirits up, although their 15-minute conversations are monitored.
Her brother “tries to keep the tone of most of his calls light,” she said, because their parents are in their 80s and “he doesn’t really want to worry them about things that might not be so great about what’s going on with the prison.”
He is also concerned about his beloved family dog, Flora, who his sister said is particularly attached to him and has grown old.
“My instruction to my parents at the outset of this ordeal was for them to ‘keep on this side of the grass, and likewise to make sure Flora did the same!’ ” Elizabeth Whelan told CNN. “However after almost three years, there is little they can do except keep her as happy and healthy as possible, and hope for the best.”