By Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. citizen Paul Whelan, a former marine jailed in Russia over espionage charges that the United States says are bogus, was seen in a rare video broadcast on Monday by a Kremlin-backed news channel.
Arrested in 2018 in Russia, Whelan was convicted of spying charges in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in a penal colony in Mordovia, a Russian region notorious since Soviet times for its penal colonies. He has denied the accusations.
The Biden administration has designated Whelan as “wrongfully detained,” a legal term that means that charges are baseless and that he was targeted primarily because he is an American citizen.
Dressed in prison’s black uniform and matching hat, Whelan appears in different parts of the prison with other inmates, sewing using a sewing machine and while at the cafeteria in the footage Russian state-controlled network Russia Today (RT) put out.
“Today was the first time I’ve seen what he really looks like since June 2020,” his brother David Whelan said in an email.
He said the Russia Today had showed up in the prison in May to film Whelan and when he declined to participate, the prison staff retaliated against him. In the video, Whelan tells the questioner that he will not answer his questions.
The Biden administration has carried out two prisoner swaps with Russia amid frosty bilateral ties due to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Whelan was part of neither.
In April 2022, Russia released former U.S. marine Trevor Reed, who was convicted there in 2019, in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
In a December 2022 prisoner swap with Russia, Washington secured the release of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.
This month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Whelan. The administration has repeatedly said it is doing everything it can to bring him home.
Russia is also holding American citizen and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on spying charges that carry up to 20 years in prison. He was arrested in end-March in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.
Gershkovich, who has denied the charges, appealed on Saturday against the latest extension of his pre-trial detention in Moscow.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Josie Kao)