Today marks 1,000 days since Paul Whelan, an American citizen and former US Marine has been unjustly detained in Russia. US President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Congress have all called on Russia to release Paul and allow him to return home to his family in Michigan. Paul’s family believe he is being held by the Russian FSB as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from the United States. This would be hostage diplomacy. We speak to Paul’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan to find out what we can do to help.
We discuss what happened to Paul, his sham trial, the deplorable conditions in Lefortovo and Mordovia IK-17 prisons, a possible prisoner swap, progress on Paul’s release since the Biden-Putin summit, repercussions of US sanctions on Russia, the Free Paul Whelan campaign, the toll Paul’s imprisonment has taken on his family, Trevor Reed as well as what the public, US government, Senate, House of Representatives, President Biden and journalists can do to help bring Paul Whelan home to his family in Michigan.
If you prefer, you can watch the video version of this interview on YouTube.
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Free Paul Whelan
[00:00:00] Daren Nair: Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world. Together with their families, we share their stories every week and let you know how you can help bring them home. I'm Daren Nair and I've had the honor of campaigning with many of these families for years.
[00:00:24] These are some of the most courageous and resilient people among us. People who have never given up hope. People who will never stop working to reunite their families. And we will be right there by their side until their loved ones are back home. Thank you for joining us. And now let's meet this week's guest.
[00:00:49] Welcome to this week's episode of Pod Hostage Diplomacy. Today marks 1000 days since Paul Whelan, an American citizen from Michigan and a former United States Marine has been unjustly detained in Russia. The U S ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan has stated the following about Paul: As long as I am here in Russia.
[00:01:09] As long as I am the U S ambassador to the Russian Federation, I will keep advocating for Paul for fair treatment. And for his immediate release, my colleagues and I will keep visiting him and assuring him of our support. And I will continue to call on Russian authorities to correct this miscarriage of justice to right the wrong and to let Paul go home.
[00:01:33] Paul belongs at home in Michigan with his family, not in a Russian labor camp. The US Senate has passed a bipartisan resolution calling on the government of the Russian Federation to either provide evidence or to release United States citizen Paul Whelan. The current US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Lavrov and called on Russia to release Paul Whelan.
[00:01:59] So he can return home to his family. US president, Joe Biden, raised Paul's case with Russian President Vladimir Putin when they both met at the Biden-Putin summit and told reporters shortly after that, he's going to follow through with that discussion. And he's not going to walk away on that. Paul's family believe he's a political hostage and he's being used as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from the United States.
[00:02:24] This would be state sponsored hostage taking also known as hostage diplomacy. Paul is not the only American and former US Marine unjustly held by Russia. Trevor Reed, an American and former US Marine from Texas has also been unjustly held in Russia for over two years now. The Russian security service, the FSB has been involved in the unjust detention of both men.
[00:02:51] The FSB is one of the successor agencies of the Soviet era KGB. There appears to be a pattern of American citizens and former US Marines in Russia being targeted by the FSB. The current US travel advisory for Russia issued by the State Department has a 'Level 4 - Do Not Travel' rating. This travel advisory states the following: do not travel to Russia due to terrorism, harassment by Russian government security officials.
[00:03:25] The embassy's limited ability to assist US citizens in Russia and the arbitrary enforcement of local law. Reconsider travel due to COVID-19 and related entry restrictions. It also states US citizens, including former and current US government and military personnel and private citizens engaged in business who are visiting or residing in Russia have been interrogated without cause and threatened by Russian officials and may become victims of harassment, mistreatment and extortion. All U S government personnel should carefully consider their need to travel to Russia.
[00:04:06] Russian security services have arrested US citizens on spurious charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment and have convicted them in secret trials and all without presenting evidence. Russian officials may unreasonably delay US consular assistance to detain the U S citizens. That is what is stated in the current US travel advisory for Russia issued by the U S State Department.
[00:04:33] We're joined today by Paul's sister, Elizabeth Whelan. Elizabeth, I'm very sorry for what Paul, you and your family are going through. We'll do everything we can to help. Thank you for joining us. Can you walk us through what happened to Paul?
[00:04:49] Elizabeth Whelan: Absolutely. And thank you very much, Daren, for having me here today and also for helping out as you are putting the spotlight on the various different, uh, cases of wrongful detention.
[00:04:59] Um, and I am very happy to be able to be here and, and talk to you about Paul. I will say before I get started that, um, of course everything that I'm going to say will be from my point of view, because as you'll see, as we're talking today, um, we've had very little opportunity to communicate fully. In fact, not at any opportunity to really communicate.
[00:05:21] Fully with Paul during the thousand days. So, um, Paul has, uh, you know, I'm the oldest and Paul is my youngest brother. So of course, you know, when any, uh, youngest sibling is in trouble, um, the oldest sort of has to come to the rescue, but the situation for Paul and in his arrest took us very much by surprise.
[00:05:44] Um, Paul's background, uh, is military, police. He has friends in the military and police. Uh, he was working a job as global security director for a large billion dollar company, uh, with plants in many countries. Um, he was, uh, the company's name is BorgWarner Automotive, and Paul was traveling to the various different plants, uh, you know, uh, physical security, uh, situation, um, that sort of, that sort of security.
[00:06:15] Um, and so. As he has always been a world traveler. This job really appealed to him. He was, uh, getting to know people in different countries. And one of those countries that he returned to a number of times, although not on business, but if he was sort of in the neighborhood, um, was Russia. He had had an opportunity when he was in the Marines and serving in Iraq.
[00:06:37] Um, a Lieutenant Colonel, I believe and his wife who were about to be posted to the U S Embassy, came through and said to the Marines there, if any of you would like to come and visit Russia, uh, we'll be there, come and look us up. And Paul on his next leave decided that this was an opportunity he couldn't miss.
[00:06:55] And that was his first visit to Russia. So over time as he returned, he got to know a few people. Paul is a very friendly person like me. Uh, when we go to places that we haven't been to before we chat to the taxi driver and the person behind the reception desk and this, that, and the other. And, and he got to know a few people over time.
[00:07:15] Um, however, he was making trips to other countries as well. It's not as if he was, you know, completely fixated on Russia, but he did learn enough as a tourist, um, that when a good friend of his also a former Marine decided to get married to a Russian woman, they had already had a wedding in the United States, but wanted to have one in Moscow for his, for her Russian family.
[00:07:38] Um, they asked Paul, could you come and help with the American guests? Could you help, uh, take them around, uh, tour them around Moscow, help them with the subway and that sort of thing. And Paul is the sort of person who is going to say yes to a friend. Uh, even though it meant that because of the timing he was going to have to be away from his own family over Christmas, he wasn't going to let his friend down.
[00:08:01] And that's what he was doing, uh, in Moscow, in the first place. So he was there as a tourist. We were hearing from him, uh, via email and, and, uh, photos. He would send, uh, how things were going. Uh, when Paul goes on trips to any country, he always, uh, sends emails mostly to, to me and my parents, um, with pictures of his breakfast or whatever happened, interesting things he happens to see in a line or two of what's going on.
[00:08:28] So, you know, nothing, nothing exhaustive, but, um, you know, so we were hearing about this, that and the other, and then the wedding was on a Friday. Um, and we didn't hear anything that day, but we didn't think anything of it because of course he would be tied up with the guests and, and helping with the wedding and all of that sort of thing.
[00:08:47] And then we still didn't hear anything from him on the Saturday. And my mother was curious, she was very curious what a Russian wedding was like. And so she went on Facebook hoping to see some pictures, um, on the groom or the, uh, you know, maybe on a friend's website. And that is where she discovered that the friend had posted a note saying that Paul was missing in Moscow and had been since Friday.
[00:09:11] So our family didn't know what to do. We couldn't imagine what would have happened. Paul is a responsible person who would never not show up for a friend's wedding, particularly under those circumstances. Um, and so, uh, his twin David, who is the spokesperson for our family, started Googling everything that we could think of.
[00:09:31] We thought perhaps he was dead or kidnapped or who knows what, uh, you know, Russian mobsters, we were thinking of everything. So he started Googling for, you know, car crash, Moscow, American, dead, Moscow, anything he could think of. And finally, I believe it was on the Sunday night. Finally saw a note, uh, actually appearing in Reuters saying that an American had been arrested on charges of espionage.
[00:09:58] And we, we found out that that was Paul, uh, and we were stunned, absolutely stunned by this news.
[00:10:06] Daren Nair: Can you talk a bit about what happened after he was arrested?
[00:10:11] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, um, that's a very good question because I don't exactly know none of us exactly know what happened after he was arrested. Um, Paul has been able to, during the course of his trials, uh, shout out information about what happened to him, but at no point, has he been able to really tell us what happened, even when consular officials, ambassadors, everyone who has gone to visit him over the thousand days, uh, at no point, has he been allowed to talk about his arrest or what happened?
[00:10:44] Um, what we understand based on reports from the trials and from what Paul was able to say, was that a person he had known for 10 years, or perhaps even a bit more, um, who he had, uh, had, uh, you know, reasonably close friendship, but perhaps. Uh, the sort of friendship you have when you go to visit a country, a number of times, and you see a person over the course of a decade, you feel that, you know them a little bit, uh, this person showed up and gave him what he thought was going to be a flash drive with vacation pictures on it.
[00:11:19] Uh, and then very shortly after that, within minutes, um, the FSB burst into his hotel room. He was getting ready for the wedding and arrested him. And so I'm sure when Paul actually is released, we will get the full story. But this is, uh, these are basically, um, and this is basically the scenario as we know it.
[00:11:40] Daren Nair: Could you just talk to us about why exactly Paul has not been able to communicate further details with yourself?
[00:11:47] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, this is a very good question. Um, the Russian authorities have kept Paul from talking to us about what actually happened. They obviously have something to hide. Uh, not only was Paul, not has Paul, not been allowed at any time to tell us how this all went down.
[00:12:07] Um, he was kept away from US consular visits four days after he was arrested. He was assigned by the FSB, a, lawyer. Uh, we were not able to get a lawyer for him. And in fact, at one point we tried to hire a lawyer that we thought would be, um, appropriate for him. Uh, and, and the FSB would not let us change the lawyer from the one that they had selected, um, as it, as it is that situation has.
[00:12:36] It turned out to be just fine. But, uh, at the time we were, we could see, obviously that Paul was being kept by the Russian authorities from any sort of communication that would tell us what was going on. Um, and at the same time they were intimidating him, harassing him, trying to coerce him into a false confession of espionage.
[00:12:57] So. The you might want to too, you might wonder, well, how can people keep someone from talking to the consular staff about anything at all? When Paul would be visited by consular staff. When he was finally allowed to see someone in the room with him would be, uh, an FSB official, um, a prison official, a translator.
[00:13:19] And if Paul started talking about anything that they felt was, uh, something he couldn't talk about that included, uh, any sort of evidence any sort of, um, anything to do with the arrest anything to do with the trial as it was going on. Um, the meeting could be, uh, cut short and actually the consular staff became worried that they would be kept from him completely.
[00:13:44] It was so extreme that at one point for many months, Paul was not even allowed to mention us, his family members by name, uh, the consular staff and Paul, if they were talking about me, for example, would have to say your sister or refer to us in some other roundabout manner. Um, he was not allowed to, to use, um, proper names.
[00:14:06] So I mean, just the most extraordinary restrictions obviously meant just to, uh, to cause roadblocks, to be psychological, um, impediments to, to just Royal be Royal pains in the ass, basically.
[00:14:21] Daren Nair: You mentioned Paul received consular visits, which is good. Um, and I know he was born in Canada to British parents of Irish descent.
[00:14:30] And moved to the US and lived in Michigan with his family, which is why, in addition to being an American citizen, he's also a Canadian, British and Irish citizen. So he received visits from not just the U S embassy, but also the UK, Canadian and Irish embassy as well. Is that right?
[00:14:49] Elizabeth Whelan: Yeah, so we, we moved to, uh, the United States when, when Paul was fairly young and he was one of the first in our family to get American citizenship actually.
[00:14:58] Um, and from the moment he was born, he also had British citizenship. And then, um, Ireland not too long ago, um, started to allow allowing foreign born nationals who had, um, Irish ancestry to get Irish citizenship, and both Paul and I, uh, became Irish citizens that way, um, to honor our heritage. And, uh, this proved to be very useful in this situation because when Paul was arrested, he was able to ask for all four embassies to come and visit him.
[00:15:30] Um, and over time, um, for example, if, uh, the MFA has some sort of beef with the U S and won't allow. The U S to go and see Paul, one of the other countries has been able to step in and make a request. So he has been able to have consular visits, but they have not been easy to acquire. The MFA will ignore requests until the last minute.
[00:15:53] Um, they will not respond to any diplomatic notes. Um, it, it has been, it has been a tense situation. We have been so thankful though, for the support of all four countries.
[00:16:04] Daren Nair: So when you say MFA, you're talking about the Russian foreign
[00:16:07] Elizabeth Whelan: ministry? That's right. The ministry of foreign affairs. Unfortunately we've become all too familiar with all the acronyms that people are using.
[00:16:15] So I'll try to, I'll try to make sure that I am specific about who I'm talking about.
[00:16:20] Daren Nair: So when Paul was arrested, the first prison he was brought to was the Lefortovo prison, right. There are many issues such as, , they were blocking, privacy act waiver and power of attorney .
[00:16:33] Can you talk to us about why these documents were important for Paul and the issues you encountered as well?
[00:16:41] Elizabeth Whelan: Uh, Lefortovo is, uh, is a notorious prison, um, uh, notorious for, uh, the, the tortures and interrogations that have gone on, uh, historically, uh, and also for its terrible condition.
[00:16:55] It's pretty rundown, um, not a great place for an American to be. And I believe the last time an American was held in Lefortovo on espionage charges was Edmond Pope. Um, uh, it was sometime around 2000. He was, he was held there also. So we were not at all happy to find out that this is where Paul was going to be taken.
[00:17:15] Um, when the consular, uh, visitors were able to go there, they were able to get some information of course, about what was going on. But as you mentioned, the privacy act waiver. Um, is a document that needs to be signed in order for the consular, for the state department to share information with other branches of government.
[00:17:34] So for example, members of Congress, who we had alerted to this situation and who wanted to find out about Paul, um, they needed to have Paul's permission. In other words, for the state department to release this information. So the privacy act waiver is a wonderful document unless you've got a situation like we did in Russia, where the authorities refuse to let the US citizen sign the document.
[00:17:58] Luckily for us, even though it took six months to get this document signed and it took it a visit from Ambassador Jon Huntsman to make it happen. Um, the state department, um, was. Careful to honor the, uh, the privacy act, but also was able to share, um, significant information with members of Congress. So everyone could understand what was going on.
[00:18:20] That Paul was, uh, not a spy that he was, um, uh, had been arrested on trumped up charges. And they were able to tell him, uh, the Congress about his conditions, his health and wellbeing.
[00:18:32] Daren Nair: Could you talk about the power of attorney document as well,
[00:18:36] Elizabeth Whelan: please? Yeah. So another problem that, uh, many people don't realize, but when, um, when you get wrongfully detained by a foreign government and thrown in a notorious prison, uh, somebody has to keep paying your bills.
[00:18:50] Somebody has to be able to access your bank account, your credit cards. Uh, you know, if you're held for a long time to make sure you're not in trouble with the IRS, um, it, it can managing, um, someone's personal affairs when they're being held like that is, is extremely complicated. And so a limited power of attorney is what most families end up trying to seek so that somebody back in the United States can keep things going well.
[00:19:16] Well the Russian authorities weren't any happier about letting Paul sign that document. We, uh, sent translated versions. Side-by-side translated versions. It went on and on. Finally, we were able to get a limited power of attorney signed months and months later, and it took then months and months to unwind the problems that had been created during that, at that time, uh, it, it was just stonewalling and roadblocks put up by the Russian authorities for, for no good reason other than to cause trouble.
[00:19:46] Daren Nair: So how long exactly was Paul kept in Lefortovo prison before his trial?
[00:19:53] Elizabeth Whelan: It was about 18 months. If I remember correctly, his, um, his, so he was arrested on December the 28th, 2018. His trial did not take place until 2020. Uh, so in the spring of 2020, um, We finally started hearing that a trial would take place. He had been given numerous hearings before that, where he was able to make appearances, but the trial itself, um, it, it took months and months until they got around to, uh, coming up with a date during that time.
[00:20:28] And, and since no evidence has ever been presented to show that Paul was engaged in anything resembling espionage, uh, not, not during the trial, which was actually held in secret, uh, not beforehand at the hearings and not since.
[00:20:44] Daren Nair: So can you talk to us about the trial? I know it was an unfair trial. Paul called it a sham trial.
[00:20:51] Can you talk to us about the trial itself and what the issues were?
[00:20:56] Elizabeth Whelan: Absolutely. Um, as I said, so the. The Russian lawyer does not speak English. Um, but had another lawyer, he hired to work with him who, uh, did speak English and who ended up working, um, sort of as a translator, uh, for Paul, but at the same time, our family did not have communication directly with them.
[00:21:20] Paul was their client. We, we were not their client. So our knowledge of exactly what was, uh, shown to him as quote unquote evidence or, uh, what sort of documents he was given. Uh, we don't know about. All we know is what the media was able to report during his hearings, media were often able to attend to them. Paul was in one of those glass aquarium cages, uh, with guards around.
[00:21:46] Um, he was, uh, uh, the trials were conducted in Russian and Paul does not speak Russian. Um, finally, um, he started getting, uh, uh, pretty belligerent. We were pleased to see, uh, he, wasn't going to take this lying down. Uh, he, his strength and courage during these hearings and the trial absolutely amazed us. And I'm so proud of him for it.
[00:22:08] Um, he started just talking over the judge, uh, you know, yelling to the, the media, the fact that he could give them before he got shut down, he took pieces of paper. Wrote pertinent facts on, uh, that he, he thought the media would be able to repeat in their news stories, uh, held that paper up to the, um, up to the cages for the, uh, photographers to take pictures, which was really good because sometimes his sound was cut off when they didn't like the fact that he was, was yelling over the judge.
[00:22:38] And it is from, from that, from his, uh, courage, from his, uh, being obstinate, not letting, this situation, stop him from speaking out. That is how we know anything at all about what happened in the trial. So during the hearings and during the trial, uh, People from the various, uh, embassies showed up, ambassadors showed up to give him support.
[00:23:03] They weren't allowed into the trial itself, but they were allowed to hear the sentencing afterwards. And they were allowed to see some of the hearings that went on. So Paul knew that there were people from the government, from the four governments. As a matter of fact, there, he knew that there was media, uh Western media that were reporting on him.
[00:23:24] Um, and I believe that probably gave him some hope and courage.
[00:23:28] Daren Nair: So we have a sham trial. We have an American and former Marine being taken on bogus charges, held in prison in deplorable conditions. So I understand the reason for this is because Russia would like to swap Paul or would like to use him as a bargaining chip to get the US, to swap prisoners with Russia. So it's my understanding based on media reports that the Russians want an arms dealer or a drug dealer to be released in exchange for Paul, could you elaborate further?
[00:24:05] Elizabeth Whelan: Yes. Um, well, as you, you hit the nail on the head when you say media reports, because we don't actually, the Whelan family has no idea why Russia has done this. Um, and, uh, if they have asked for anybody of that nature, if they have actually asked the U S government for these people, we don't know that either.
[00:24:23] Um, from the very start, the, the Russian lawyer mentioned that it was possible that Paul, had been, um, arrested in order to have a trade for these two people and media outlets, latched onto this story and wouldn't let go. Um, but they also wouldn't let go of the idea that Paul was, uh, you know, a spy like 007 because of all of his passports until finally that situation was, was cleared up.
[00:24:50] So we don't really know. What, uh, you know, that we've, we've heard the same, uh, stories that, um, that Russia wants to swap this person or that person. We have no idea what Russia wants, and we have no idea, um, whether these reports are legitimate or not. Our feeling is as the, as the family, our point of view is that Paul should be released because he has not committed a crime.
[00:25:15] He is serving a sentence, a 16 year sentence for a crime he did not commit. Um, this is just ridiculous. The Russians even violated their own laws to, to make this happen. Uh, I don't believe there's anyone who thinks there's a shred of evidence against him. So as far as we're concerned, um, we would like Paul back in any way that the Russians would like to return him.
[00:25:41] We just want him back. Um, but we can't see how he is possibly, um, someone to be used as a bargaining chip when he is so obviously being held on false pretenses.
[00:25:52] Daren Nair: I understand during the trial itself, when you said he spoke over the judge, he said this specifically, which was recorded by the BBC, a person turned up in my room, put something in my pocket, and then I was arrested. That person was an FSB officer. He's someone I've known for 10 years. There's absolutely no reason that person should have been in my room.
[00:26:15] No reason they should have given me any sort of flash drive. So that's what Paul said. He was basically shouting or talking over the judge, uh, during the sentencing and that was recorded by the media. As you said, he was given a 16 year sentence where is Paul right now?
[00:26:36] Elizabeth Whelan: Paul is in Mordovia, which is, uh, a distant province, about eight hours drive from Moscow.
[00:26:45] Um, he is at a prison camp called IK 17. Um, we don't know a lot of the details about his living conditions. Although we have gone and looked at, uh, the prison camp on Google earth and it has received a couple of one star ratings. So it doesn't sound like a really wonderful place to be. Um, he, uh, has to work in a garment factory.
[00:27:09] Um, doing various different types of sewing and things. He is in a, a barracks with, I think about 17 other people from Tajikistan, uh, criminals of all different sorts. Um, I don't know exactly what the population of the prison camp is, but it's very dilapidated. These are the Stalin era prison camps that really never went out of, um, out of use.
[00:27:34] And, uh, they're, they're not well kept up. Um, the, the area is extremely rural, extremely forested and extremely distant.
[00:27:43] Daren Nair: So speaking of the deplorable conditions that Paul's being kept in, I understand for a while there were flight risk checks conducted where
[00:27:54] Literally every two hours, irrespective of time, night or day people would come in, wake up Paul, if he will sleeping and just get him to stand, just to confirm that that was Paul. And these were done 24 hours a day, every two hours, which as a, as anyone listening can imagine would be a nightmare to actually get any decent sleep.
[00:28:16] So these were the type of checks that they were doing on Paul. I also understand that he was denied PPE during the COVID pandemic. I recall him saying this as well during the trial. He's exact words were my dog has received better medical care than I have in this Russian prison. I understand that he had emergency hernia surgery as well, and he was also placed in solitary confinement.
[00:28:46] Could you just talk to us a bit more or is there anything I missed?
[00:28:50] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, that's actually a really good list. Uh, you know, this has gone on for a thousand days and it seems that there are a thousand infractions and a thousand, uh, violations of his rights that have happened. It's so I was making notes because I knew I would be speaking to you, trying to think back through all the various things that have happened.
[00:29:11] Um, Paul was scheduled for, uh, to have uh treatment for his hernia. Um, when he got back from Moscow in January of 2019, we tried to get somebody to give him some, uh, sort of surgery or care, uh, during the time he was held at Lefortovo finally, it became an emergency in the middle of the night. He was, uh, uh, given surgery, um, at the prison.
[00:29:35] And you can just imagine, um, the conditions, the situation, we're just lucky that, that he survived all of that. And. I, since he has been at I K 17, I don't believe that there has been any improvement in the sort of treatment that he gets. Uh, he certainly has been, as you said, he was called a flight risk. Um, I believe he is still being woken every two hours during the night and a photograph is taken of him, um, which he deems as crazy because they are watched by a video camera.
[00:30:09] Anyone can see that he is there, it doesn't require a special check. Um, but this is the sort of thing that is done, uh, just to be, uh, just to be a coercive, just to intimidate, just to harass.
[00:30:24] Daren Nair: So how do you keep in touch with Paul at the moment? I know right now, or at least I've seen the photos you've posted on Twitter, you do send and receive letters, from Paul.
[00:30:38] Is that right? So I know he also numbers them. So you can tell, if any, have been missed or if, the Russian authorities have decided to confiscate any of these letters.
[00:30:50] Elizabeth Whelan: Yes, this is true. So the first 18 months when he was held at , we had no phone calls at all. We had no opportunity to speak to Paul directly.
[00:30:59] The only people, the only American voices or people speaking in English that he got to speak to at all, where the consular visitors from the different embassies, um, at no point were we able to, uh, communicate with him directly, we were able to write and he was able to write back, but the letters were held for months.
[00:31:18] So you would get suddenly a stack of letters. Usually before somebody important was going to visit him. All of a sudden the prison would release, uh, you know, a hundred letters that Paul had written. Um, but they would be six months old. And so the frustrations that built up while we were trying to communicate information to him through these letters, ours were being held.
[00:31:38] He wasn't getting them in a timely manner. Uh, that just compounded after he was sent to IK 17, he was allowed to start calling our parents on occasion for 15 minutes at a time. And he was also allowed to on occasion, uh, speak to the U S and the UK embassy for 15 minutes at a time. So because our parents are elderly, um, and we are very concerned, uh, that they may not actually see Paul.
[00:32:07] Um, while they're still alive, they may not see him in person again, he phones them and we, transmit messages for our parents to tell him, um, uh, what's going on. Or if he has got questions, we tried to answer and we also, uh, write letters, but those letters, uh, just as at Lefortovo, I K 17 isn't any faster at getting these letters to him.
[00:32:32] So either the Russian post is abysmal or the prison is just sitting on them, um, just to be a nuisance.
[00:32:39] Daren Nair: So I mentioned at the beginning, a lot of US politicians have called for Paul's release, the US Ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the US Senate, many members of the House of Representatives, as well as President Biden and, ,there was a Biden Putin summit a few months ago.
[00:33:02] And going into this summit, you were getting a lot of media attention. Things were looking up for Paul. Could you just talk about what went on during the summit and have there been any developments since?
[00:33:17] Elizabeth Whelan: Yes. Um, yeah, that's a, that's a big issue right there. Um, both our family and the family of Trevor Reed who is now being held also in Mordovia not too far away from, um, Paul.
[00:33:31] We were both very pleased to finally have our family members, uh, on the agenda at the Biden Putin summit. Both of our families. Uh, Trevor Reed has been held only a short time, less than, than Paul in Russia. Both of our families have advocated hard both with the Trump administration and with the current administration to get some high-level attention.
[00:33:56] Uh, I don't believe either one of us think that any sorts of arrangements or, or agreements or, or meetings should be going on without Paul and Trevor being released. So we were, we were thrilled to find out that not only was uh Paul going to be addressed at the summit, but also to hear both, um, president Biden and president Putin mention that something could possibly get sorted out.
[00:34:21] Uh, as you, as you say, we have a lot of support in Congress. Um, it has grown over time. I think there were a number of representatives and senators who were nervous about the Russia issue during the Trump administration. And it was difficult for us to get traction and support for Paul, but now we have full throated, uh, support.
[00:34:43] Um, the state department, the embassy has always been so supportive and very concerned about the wellbeing, um, of, of Paul the entire time he's been there. Um, so we've had this groundswell of support. Uh, now we were hearing this from the White House. We were, we were elated and we were hoping that something would come to pass.
[00:35:07] Now it is over three months since that summit. Um, we have not had information about precisely what's going on. Uh, we don't really, we don't really know what movement has been made. We are very hopeful that the state department has been, uh, trying to connect with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Um, but we really don't know what's going on.
[00:35:32] It's it's very worrying.
[00:35:34] Daren Nair: Since president Biden came into office, the Russian government have been up to some dodgy activities and that has resulted in US imposing sanctions on them. Now I, are you worried about any repercussions on Paul as a result of these US sanctions on Russia?.
[00:35:52] Elizabeth Whelan: You know, it's really interesting when, when a family gets started on something like this, they usually don't know much about the foreign policy of the U S uh, with the other country.
[00:36:02] Um, and I certainly wasn't, you know, up to date on US Russia foreign policy, um, during the Trump administration, it was very difficult to understand exactly where, um, our foreign policy stood. Um, there were sanctions and sanctions lifted and, and many different moves made that were confusing, I think, to the issue and, and made it difficult for understand for us to understand what was going to be, uh, harmful to Paul and what was not.
[00:36:30] So in the early days of the Biden administration, not much seemed to be happening on the Paul front in part, because. There was, uh, a concerted attempt to get a Russia foreign policy nailed down to understand how we were going to engage with Russia and go forward. And of course the Whelan family was following this pretty closely.
[00:36:51] We've heard numerous times over the years, um, from both administrations that this move or that move had to be done carefully, or we had to be careful because, uh, because there would be some repercussion on Paul or something could make it worse. Well, during the course of that, starting from when Paul was arrested to now, the fact that he's serving 16 years in a Mordovian prison camp, things have gotten worse.
[00:37:16] Uh, you know, we may have avoided this move and that move, uh, over, over time, um, with the idea that it wasn't going to come back and, and impact Paul, but Paul has been impacted by the lack of action. I don't know where we stand right now in terms of doing what, uh, both President Biden and president Putin alluded to in terms of working something out.
[00:37:38] But I do know if we don't start seeing some movement, I'm going to be very hopeful that the U S government starts getting an awful lot tougher with Russia than they have been so far. And I would also like to see US citizens and their release be put at the forefront of foreign policy in general, in Russia and with other countries.
[00:37:59] Daren Nair: I absolutely agree with you and I'm sure every other American family with loved ones held hostage or unjustly detained overseas would say the exact same thing. So you have a public campaign it's called the Free Paul Whelan campaign. You and your siblings are leading this campaign. Now I've campaigned with many families.
[00:38:21] Of loved ones, held hostage and unjustly detained around the world for years. And many of these families are advised to keep the captivity of their loved ones, quiet either by their state department or foreign office or whatever the equivalent of that office is in their respective country. They are told by their government, don't go to the media, keep this quiet, let us work on this behind the scenes.
[00:38:47] We will have a better chance of getting them released if we keep this quiet. So many families tend to trust their governments, their foreign offices, their state departments. And after a few months, if not a few years, they realize that no real progress has been made. And the only thing that's changed is they've lost this amount of time.
[00:39:09] And their loved one has continued to suffer in prison or in captivity wherever they're being held. So a lot of them tend to get upset or a lot of them say, if we had to do this all over again, they will go directly to the media on day one. Now you have a public campaign. Did you go to the media on day one or did you keep quiet for a while and try to let the government handle this behind the scenes first, can you just talk to us about what happened in your case?.
[00:39:42] Elizabeth Whelan: Yes, absolutely. Um, and it was complete, probably complete ignorance on our part, but we went to the media right away. Um, so a number of things were happening all at once when Paul was arrested, it was the Russian holiday. They were stopping consular, um, access. Uh, they didn't tell him, I believe it was, uh, almost a week before they let anyone in to see him.
[00:40:02] We couldn't, uh, talk to, um, we we didn't know what his, if he had legal representation or what was going on, uh, we didn't, weren't able to communicate with anyone in Russia. We don't speak Russian. Um, and so almost immediately, my other two brothers and I put our heads together and realized we were going to have to start taking some action and, uh, sort of divided up, um, organically tasks between us in terms of, of who could do what.
[00:40:31] And, uh, I'm work for myself. I'm most flexible. So I took, and I took on uh, starting to contact members of Congress and all of that sort of thing. Our brother David, uh, took on the role of spokesperson because he, he, uh, well, he's very good at it. He's used to public speaking and now we're all quite used to speaking in public.
[00:40:52] But at the time I was scared to death of talking to the media about what the right thing would be to say. And David who has done quite a bit of public speaking, knew that he would be able to talk and speak for the family. So he immediately start putting, started putting information out there, but also we were somewhat helped by, um, this, by the FSB themselves or whoever released the report to Reuters that put out there that an American had been arrested, we started being contacted by people because we could be found on Twitter.
[00:41:24] Uh, we were not inaccessible. And we were able to start funneling these people to David. He started putting out those, uh, media statements, which we have now accumulated on the website, quite a number of them, quite a historical record for how this has gone. So it's an interesting question about whether people should or should not go to the media in our case.
[00:41:46] I'm so glad we did. I'm so glad we got right out there because a lot of. I would say the greater majority of journalists have been extremely supportive and have done good reporting on Paul's case, and really tried to find out what the facts of the matter were. But to begin with, it was quite a bit of sensational reporting.
[00:42:06] People loved this idea of the four passports and the wholesome sort of 007, which made all of us laugh because, uh, one could hardly get further from the truth. Um, and it became important for us to start putting facts out there to counteract that narrative and to concentrate on what were the important thing was, which was a US citizen had been falsely arrested on ridiculous charges in Russia and something needed to be done about it.
[00:42:35] Um, and so we have been contacted since then over the, over the last couple of years by other families who, as you say, had decided, you know what, we're going to change our tactic we it doesn't matter what anyone's told us. We need to be more public. Um, and it's not easy. So, let me just sort of put this out there for any family member who is listening right now, who, who wonders?
[00:42:54] How do you go about, uh, putting a story out there? My brother David is very factual. He doesn't, um, he's not sensationalist. Uh, he puts very little of his own opinions into the statements. What we do is we report on what we see, uh, in the news, things that are happening in Congress, other, uh, useful bits of information.
[00:43:14] So journalists can take that information and go and investigate by themselves. They need to be able to corroborate what we're, what we're talking about. And to begin with, uh, the local TV and radio stations, for example, in Michigan. Um, were the most interested because Paul is from Michigan after that happened, national news and international news started picking up the stories, but you have to be willing to get out there with the facts and to give people consistent information.
[00:43:44] And if you do that, they will have an interest in the case and follow it. I think what's difficult for families over time, and we have noticed this. Um, you know, right now, Paul is in Mordovia in a prison. Um, that is not a story that is perpetually interesting to an editor. It is perhaps good fortune for Paul that Russia keeps doing stupid things to him and giving us reasons to write more stories about, uh, their mistreatment.
[00:44:12] It's, it's really quite ridiculous. Um, but that is, uh, at no point, did the state department ever say to us, you know, you really should stop that. Um, I think they realized that, that we were going to speak out for Paul and we were going to point out what Russia was doing, uh, regardless. Um, also with wrongful detention, I think this is a little bit different from, um, what you might think of hostage taking by a terrorist organization.
[00:44:38] And we felt that with Paul making these public hearings, that we should also speak out as loudly as possible on his behalf,
[00:44:45] Daren Nair: Do you feel that they were intentionally cruel in thei r treatment of Paul to basically trigger yourselves, to get you to be outraged, to go to the media, to escalate this, to put more pressure on the U S government to do something, uh, in some cases agree, a prisoner's swap.
[00:45:05] Do you feel that the Russian authorities are cruel in this calculative way to basically put pressure on the US government to get on and make a deal? Or do you think it is just the, it's just them being cruel for fun?
[00:45:25] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, I think probably there's a bit of both. I think when, you know, if you take the, sort of the personality of a prison guard, you can have those people who are really interested in law and order, and those people who are just cruel and this sort of job appeals to them and the opportunity to be cruel, uh, with impunity, um, is what they're going to do uh Paul for the first 18 months when he was in Lefortovo, he was kept, uh, in solitary confinement.
[00:45:48] Often he was, uh, sometimes given one cell mate. Um, he would have one other person with him, but most of the time, uh, you know, he was subject to the whims of the guards as he is now at the prison camp. I think it's a bit of a mixture. Um, There are, I think there there's just cruelty because there's cruelty in, in prisons.
[00:46:10] I also do believe that, um, the last thing the Russian authorities wanted was for Paul to be able to, um, state to anyone just how ridiculous this entire situation was. Um, I think they aren't happy that he's relatively clever about getting his message out to the media. He was most recently put in solitary confinement for a month.
[00:46:32] We believe as retaliation for being able to speak to a CNN reporter. Um, but I believe that Paul felt it was worth it, his, uh, you know, he, he had a right to make a phone call and to talk to this person. Uh, and, and he did so. Now, when it comes to using the family to get for Russia, to get what they want, if that's the case, they've picked the wrong family, because I'm not going to carry water for the Russian authorities.
[00:46:57] Uh, I'm going to definitely entreat the U S government and every other government in the world to get involved and to stop Russia from doing this, uh, hostage diplomacy. It's ridiculous. It's the sort of behavior that belongs to a terrorist country. Uh, any country that has any degree of responsibility, uh, who has the stature to appear on the world stage, doesn't do this sort of thing.
[00:47:22] So of course, I'm going to, uh, you know, be asking the U S government to get engaged and to engage with Russia, to try to get this resolved and to get Paul home but Russia is who is at fault here. Russia is the one who has falsely arrested my brother, Russia is the one that gave him the ridiculous sentence and a sham trial, and is now holding him, uh, in a prison camp.
[00:47:46] Um, and I'm not going to go about trying to convince the U S government that they need to do something that, uh, that Russia might want. Um, that is whatever agreement gets made. It needs to be done as, uh, president Putin himself said it needs to be an arrangement between the MFA and the state department.
[00:48:05] And I expect that the MFA, uh, uh, take president Putin's words to heart and engage with the state department to get this resolved.
[00:48:15] Daren Nair: Now, you mentioned earlier as a result of this injustice, you, your brother, David and the rest of your family have had to, put your personal lives and your work lives on hold, or at least use up a lot of your time.
[00:48:30] To campaign for Paul's release. Can you just talk about the toll Paul's wrongful imprisonment has taken on your family?
[00:48:39] Elizabeth Whelan: Yes. Um, and I think, uh, I probably speak for, for every single family in this situation. Um, our, our situations aren't identical, the countries are different. The crimes are different, but I believe, um, for those families where they're publicly or privately advocating for their loved one, um, our loved one is in jail, but we are also in jail.
[00:49:03] We are being held prisoner, not just by, uh, the country that holds our loved one. We are also, uh, jailed by, uh, the. Restraints put on us by our own government by, uh, not being able to get support at various different times, um, for, uh, the entire advocacy, uh, issue, uh, what it takes. You're not able to get away from it.
[00:49:29] You're you're no matter where you go, you can't take a vacation and say, well, I'm just going to not think about my brother in jail, wherever you go. This prison you're in, goes with you. And this takes a real psychological toll. Um, you spend your resources, the money that you have to go to Washington and lobby.
[00:49:48] Uh, it is very disheartening to have members of Congress, um, either not meet with you or, uh, pretend they're going to do something, but not actually do it, or use the case of your loved ones, wrongful detention as a political tool against the current administration. It can be disheartening to have to navigate some of these waters as you go along.
[00:50:14] So psychologically, all of this does take a toll, but. On the other on the other half, uh, I would say you meet some incredible people, really, really supportive people. Uh, people like, um, Paul's representative in Michigan, um, uh, Representative Haley Stevens, who from she had not even been sworn in for her position.
[00:50:36] She was on her way to Washington DC. When she found out that one of her constituents had been falsely arrested in Russia and she has not stopped advocating for him, uh, since then my own representative, uh, Bill Keating, um, the Senators from Michigan and actually all the other representatives from Michigan as well, many members of the state department, uh, former ambassador, John Huntsman, the current ambassador, John Sullivan, uh, the embassy staff.
[00:51:04] Um, and, and then of course the, uh, office of the special presidential Envoy for hostage affairs, all of these people have been so supportive. So for every awful moment that we experienced. We have all of these other people who are there trying to help as well, trying to solve the problem.
[00:51:22] Daren Nair: No, that's amazing.
[00:51:23] And I'm glad these individuals are out there. Speaking of amazing individuals, I understand you've received some great support from organizations like Hostage US and the James Foley Legacy Foundation. Can you just elaborate further because it's important that other families in your position know that there are organizations like this out there and what type of support they provide.
[00:51:46] Elizabeth Whelan: Absolutely. In fact, I was just going to jump in and make sure I mentioned them. And I'd like to mention also the Richardson Center. So when we started, um, trying to meet with members of Congress and get support and tell Paul's story over and over again, we weren't sure what to do. We weren't getting much engagement.
[00:52:06] Um, uh, we were getting great help from the U S embassy in Moscow, but we weren't getting great help from the state department in DC at that time. Um, American citizens services was very good, but higher up at the more political level, it was a real problem. Um, we weren't sure how we were going to get the right amount of U S government support to solve, uh, this situation and help get Paul released.
[00:52:28] And so the Richardson Center was one of the first organizations that we, uh, managed to, uh, connect with who said they might be able to give some support and some help perhaps go and talk to, uh, people in DC and, and try to move things along. We also, I'd like to also mention. The very wonderful lawyer, Ryan Fahy of Hughes Hubbard and Reed, um, in DC who, um, gosh, he contacted us and said, it sounds like you need help.
[00:52:59] I can tell that Paul is not a spy. Absolutely no way. I used to work in the department of justice. And I can help introduce you to some people that might be able to, to get this along. And then as we went along, we met, uh, as you said that the James Foley, uh, James W. Foley legacy foundation, their staff, um, Hostage US, an incredible organization that, um, gives help and support to family members as they're going through these sorts of ordeals and also helps detainees and hostages.
[00:53:29] When they come back, unwind all the problems that have been created during their absence. Um, these organizations, if you're a person who, who a loved one has just been wrongfully detained, Look, these people up online and get in touch with them. Even if you think your case doesn't fall within their requirements, or you're not quite sure if they can help you, they will listen to you.
[00:53:52] They will try to connect you to people who can help. They really are wonderful organizations. And before we were able to get the appropriate level of support for uh, Paul from the government, these folks were there for us, all of them and still are.
[00:54:07] Daren Nair: That's amazing. So thank you for these organizations for what they do.
[00:54:11] You have also been campaigning with the Reed family because Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan are both Americans both former Marines, both unjustly detained in Russia. And I understand they're in the same prison.
[00:54:24] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, they're in the same province. So that's like being in the same large area of, of Russia. Uh, there's sort of a, uh, in Mordovia, there's sort of a, um, what would you call that?
[00:54:34] Uh, There are, there are quite a number of these prison camps scattered around and joined up by roads and the various small villages and towns in this area. The prison is actually the industry for that particular town. So I believe Trevor is at I K-12. And Paul is at IK 17. They're not that far apart physically, but they are unable to, to, uh, be in touch with each other as far as I know.
[00:55:01] So when we saw what happened, we were of course, unaware of the Reed family situation, because they'd been trying to keep it quiet. So until we actually connected and started talking about, you know, how the Whelans were going about advocacy and that sort of thing, uh, as they, uh, they met up with Jonathan Franks and started, um, their own journey with, with Free Trevor Reed.
[00:55:23] Um, we were really hopeful that because the charges against Trevor were so different and that he was being tried in the Moscow courts that he wasn't being held in Lefortovo, uh, that he wasn't being given such a, it was a ridiculous charge, but it wasn't quite as ridiculous as that espionage, that there would be some chance that something could get worked out before his trial and that he would be released.
[00:55:48] Um, And of course that didn't happen. And when we saw that he went through this sham trial and then in particular, once now that he's been sent to Mordovia, um, I think both our family and the state department realized that, uh, you know, there, wasn't going to be a way that Trevor would be able to be released as quickly as everyone hoped and that, um, that they were both in the same, um, in, in the same sort of pot of water.
[00:56:16] Um, it's difficult. I think sometimes we both support each other. I have so much respect for, for Joey and Paula. I think they are wonderful people. Um, and I certainly believe that we should advocate together and do advocate together for example, on Twitter and that sort of thing. When we were first starting, uh, to, to advocate for Paul and Trevor's case, uh, came up, um, there were people within the government who advised us to keep, uh, the cases separate because they did think there might be two separate solutions over time, the, uh, the state department, and now the administration, um, call for both men to be released, uh, in the, and they say it in the same sentence.
[00:56:55] So we, you know, there, there is no differentiation. It's not as if one should be released and the other should not, uh, we all advocate for both of them at the same time when our family puts out our our media statements, we have to stick to the facts we know about Paul in his case because we, of course, were not familiar with the, the details.
[00:57:15] I was thrilled to listen to your podcast where you interview Joey and Paula, because I heard a lot of information. I didn't know about the incredible, incredible fight that they had been putting up for their son to try to get him released. Uh, just really an amazing, um, an amazing family. And I support them so much.
[00:57:36] And I can't wait to see both of our families and both of our loved ones released and back in the United States.
[00:57:41] Daren Nair: Absolutely. When I spoke to Joey and Paula, their resilience, their courage is phenomenal. And, I think, Trevor could not ask for better people in his corner. Exactly. So what can the American public do to help free Paul?
[00:57:55] There are obviously lots of people listening who are based in the US, what can they do to help free Paul?.
[00:58:03] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, this is an interesting, um, I was thinking about this, you know, before the podcast. It's an interesting question, because of course we always say, you know, call your representatives and senators and, and say, you want to see Paul Whelan come home.
[00:58:16] But I think a lot of the American public, isn't quite sure how to go about this because unless you've been involved in, uh, in trying to get something done in politics, you're not really sure who to call you. You go to a website for your representative and Senator, and there are three or four different offices and different phone numbers.
[00:58:33] And you're not quite sure what to say, or if, what you say, uh, has an impact. And so what I've discovered from spending an awful lot of time on Capitol hill is that your voice really does count much more than you might think, because. Uh, a citizen might go, well, gosh, you know, is my member of Congress going to pay any attention?
[00:58:56] Um, you know, I'm a little scared. I'm not going to make the call. Meanwhile, the member of Congress is going, gosh, my constituents don't seem to be all that interested in this topic. I'm not going to talk about it. That the citizen themselves goes, gosh, my member of Congress hasn't said anything about it.
[00:59:11] Maybe he's not supportive, so I'm not going to reach out. And so the sort of cyclical inaction takes place. So I am here to tell you because I've heard it. I have sat in people's offices. I have listened to the people answering the phone and in, uh, representatives' and senator's offices. They take note of every single call that's made.
[00:59:32] So who you want to call is the DC, the Washington DC office for your senators or your representatives, because they're the closest to the action. The district offices are great, but if you really want to get to the heart of the matter call the Washington DC number, You don't have to know us personally or know Paul, or be from Michigan or, or, uh, make calls for Trevor, uh, who is from Texas.
[00:59:56] You can call any representative, any Senator in the country and say, you want to see them supportive of the release of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. You want to see these Americans come home, that you are, uh, concerned that you haven't heard more in the news and you would like your member of Congress to speak up.
[01:00:16] And this will make a difference because the more people who call that, uh, that representative when they get the report. Daily or weekly from the legislative aide who answered the phone? Um, they're going to say, Hey, we got three calls, 10 calls, 30 calls about Paul Whelan. This is something that you need to pay attention to.
[01:00:35] And all of a sudden they're asking their foreign policy person to give them the latest on Paul Whelan. Uh, and I myself communicate with many of these staffers to let them know what's going on. So your voice really does make a difference. You know, if you want Paul and Trevor home, call your House of Representatives, call your local Representatives, call the Senators for your state.
[01:00:57] Call everyone, call all 535 members of Congress and tell them that you want to see Paul and Trevor home. The other thing you can do is you can, uh, we don't know. I don't know if we have, if there's an address for Trevor Reed yet, but there is for Paul Whelan, you can go to, uh, our website, which is FreePaulWhelan.com and, uh, on, on one of the pages, there, there is a.
[01:01:21] Prison address where you can write to Paul. Uh, like I said, the prison will sit on the letters for a good while, but he does seem to eventually get them. And he would love to hear from fellow Americans. You have to remember for a thousand days, he has hardly heard anyone speak in English. He has, when he was in Lefortovo, he was denied books in English for months and months.
[01:01:44] Uh, even now he hears Russian all the time, you know, to send some photos of, of, you know, wherever you are in the U S to talk about the, the weather you're experiencing. Right. And right now what the sports teams are doing, he would love to hear from it from you. Um, it doesn't matter what you say. A letter from the US to Paul would be really welcome.
[01:02:05] And then lastly, we also have a GoFundMe page, FreePaulWhelan, if you go to, um, the GoFundMe website and just search for Paul Whelan, you'll find it. Um, he's had a lot of support over, over the, uh, a thousand days. And we're so glad of it because when he was at Lefortovo literally. The US embassy had to go and shop for him for food, for, for toothpaste, for toilet paper, even none of these things were supplied by the prison.
[01:02:31] So if we hadn't had the help of citizens out there who were just, you know, didn't even know, some of them didn't even know Paul, but were willing to give him some assistance. It has made all the difference. And even now the supplies and food and such that Paul gets at the prison is augmented by, uh, what is brought by the embassy because the prison supplies very little and certainly nothing that's really nutritious.
[01:02:55] So when the embassy does go down to make the eight hour drive down to, to see Paul, they take groceries and things, and that comes out of the GoFundMe because our family doesn't have the means to, uh, to, to support somebody in a Russian prison. Um, for, for all of these years. The money also goes to help Paul, make these international phone calls to speak to his parents, which is such an incredibly important, uh, way to support Paul is for him to have this lifeline back to the United States again.
[01:03:29] Uh, so it it's extremely valuable. Um, and we thank everybody who has contributed, uh, who is writing to Paul, who sends him postcards and letters, uh, and who is called their members of Congress to help get more support.
[01:03:43] Daren Nair: Thank you for that. That's a phenomenal list of things that, members of the public can do to help.
[01:03:48] So that's, that's great. So it's FreePaulWhelan.com is the website. And, if you're on GoFundMe, just look for Paul Whelan.
[01:03:57] Elizabeth Whelan: And you can follow us on, uh, Free Paul Whelan, um, on Twitter as well. Uh, and we have a, uh, Facebook page. Um, so we try to be different. People want to access the information in different ways.
[01:04:09] We try to keep people updated, um, as to what we've heard. Uh, we, can't always, uh, talk in detail because, uh, you know, I personally am not speaking to Paul directly, but he is able to give some messages to our parents that we can pass on and, and post. And we also, um, if we are hearing interesting things which we sometimes do in the Russian media, we're able to use these platforms to also, uh, alert journalists and alert, interested people that, that something interesting or odd is going on, uh, about Paul's case in, in Russia.
[01:04:42] Daren Nair: So the U S state department has a special office within the State Department called the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. And the individual with that position is Ambassador Roger Carstens. So what can the U S special presidential Envoy for hostage affairs also known as SPEHA do better to help you and your family bring Paul home?
[01:05:12] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, first of all, I would just want to say that Ambassador Carstens is the most amazing fellow and everybody who works in that office are they're just phenomenal. Um, you know, they are the cream of the crop. Um, I cannot say enough about, about all of them and about the support that they give us. Um, So the office of the special presidential Envoy for hostage affairs, which we call SPEHA because that's a mouthful.
[01:05:38] So S P E H A SPEHA is how we refer to them. Um, this was created, uh, guess about seven years ago now six or seven years ago under a directive called PPD 30, uh, during the Obama administration to try to help, uh, families and efforts within government to be more organized for helping hostages and the wrongfully detained.
[01:06:01] Um, however, until recently the wrongfully detained were sort of in this kind of murky area where, uh, if you were a hostage and called a hostage, there was quite immediate response from the U S government. But if a person was wrongfully detained, it was sort of a loophole that many of these countries discovered that if they, if, if we recognize them as a nation and recognize there that they had a legal system that they could use.
[01:06:27] Detention as a way to hold their hostage. Uh, that we, I had a, I had a hard time, um, counteracting. So the Robert Levinson act, which, um, has come into being recently has sort of, uh, solidified our response to wrongful detention and has made it easier for the SPEHA office to, to respond and engage with foreign countries to try to, to deal with the situation.
[01:06:53] Now, one of the things that's really great about this office is that they don't have to get entangled with all of the other foreign policy that is going on with a particular country. They can come into that country and speak just about let's resolve this situation that has been created because oftentimes, and which I think happened with both Paul and with Trevor, you have a lower level individual, somewhere in the security services who decides to take some sort of initiative on their, on their own without necessarily a directive from higher up and ends up arresting somebody who someone higher up then later decides could be possibly useful.
[01:07:34] So it's a situation that isn't necessarily created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia. And perhaps the MFA would like to unwind it. And the special presidential Envoy can go in. He is, he is, uh, appointed by the president. He can go in and speak on the side and possibly try to get the situation taken care of.
[01:07:55] So I will say that. This is one of those offices that has a few of the people who've occupied. That position have not engaged with me. Let me just be quite frank about it. I couldn't get a meeting in the Trump administration with the people who were in that position. Um, during the time that Paul has been arrested, we've gone through, uh, you know, we've seen two presidents, uh, two different, um, ambassadors to Russia, three different people in the SPEHA position.
[01:08:24] Um, three different national security advisers, uh, two different secretaries of state count, countless members of Congress changing. So there's been a lot of churn. Um, I was overwhelmed and so thankful when the current SPEHA Ambassador Carstens when his office reached out to me, um, in early in 2020, and finally said, look, you know, we're going to take on Paul's case.
[01:08:52] We feel this is a wrongful detention. Um, and we want to, we want to sort this situation out. And so, you know, I can't, I can't say enough about them, what I do think, however, it's not so much about what more can SPEHA do to help us it's what more can the rest of the U S government to do to help SPEHA. So this is a relatively new group they're sort of put on the side of the state department.
[01:09:17] Um, their, their mission is a little different from that of a regular diplomat. And I'm not sure that all of the other agencies and departments within the U S government have quite figured out that they're responsible also not just SPEHA, but they are also responsible for helping and supporting, uh, getting US citizens home.
[01:09:37] It's not just something that they can just leave to these guys. And gals to take care of that they actually need to play apart. Likewise members of business, um, the business community, um, that's out there making deals with Russia while Russia is holding two U S citizens. They need to take into account the fact that their behavior is contributing to the problem they are.
[01:10:01] They are prolonging Paul and Trevor's, uh, detention by not, um, backing up the U S government and trying to get US citizens home. And so I think that the solution to a, to wrongful detention or the way that we, uh, get people released requires, uh, at the very least a whole of government approach, but it really requires a whole of country approach.
[01:10:25] We need not just the people in Washington, DC, but the larger business community and, and the US citizenry to put US citizens in front of business interests, money-making back room deals, uh, treaties, uh, and other arrangements. We need to get our people home first.
[01:10:44] Daren Nair: You bring a very good point when you talk about the businesses, because it could be one of their employees.
[01:10:50] It could be their own CEO being detained in Russia. And so, so it's very important. They take into account what they can do to minimize this hostage taking or wrongful detention. You bring up a good point when you mentioned the difference in terminology as wrongfully detained and as hostage. So the U S government currently does not accurately identify victims of state-sponsored hostage-taking these tend to be innocent Americans detained on bogus charges in countries like Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.
[01:11:24] These individuals tend to be classified as wrongfully detained. Now you did mention a bit of this earlier. The problem with this classification is number one, it's not accurate. And number two, the level of support the families of these individuals receive from the U S government varies depending on their classification.
[01:11:43] If they are classified as a hostage, there is a lot more support available for the families and many more people within the US government working to bring these individuals home, they receive a lot less support if their case is incorrectly classified as wrongfully detained. So what are your thoughts on what should the state department be doing to change this terminology?
[01:12:06] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, this is, uh, this is, uh, I could speak for ever on this particular topic, but I'll keep it brief. So you're absolutely right. Um, uh, you know, there's sort of a, the traditional idea of what a hostage is, somebody taken at gunpoint by a terrorist group and, uh, you know, held in secret somewhere and then there's.
[01:12:25] What you accurately term as, um, hostage diplomacy, which is, um, where the, the, uh, term wrongful detention sort of falls under that umbrella. Um, wrongful detention is a very, um, soft way to describe what's happened to Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed and, and, uh, to the Citgo six and, and to, um, all of the other people that are currently being held and we use the word, the term wrongfully detained, because that is sort of in government, how, uh, we're identifying, you know, what Paul is and what sort of, of, uh, you know, response and help we can, we can get, but it isn't accurate as you, as you said, because hostage diplomacy.
[01:13:07] Isn't about just arresting someone and not, um, and holding them because you don't have the right evidence or whatever. This is about coercion. This is about trying to get something out of a government by holding one of their citizens that is hostage taking plain and simple. Um, and it's, it's it's although the special presidential Envoy office, uh, is part of the state department and diplomacy is one of the ways that we go about trying to resolve these situations.
[01:13:36] Um, uh, hostage, hostage, diplomacy, wrongful detention is a national security issue. It is a national security issue that a foreign country can take an American citizen and hold them and try to get something for them. Uh, this is, uh, this is. Uh, on a large scale is a problem that needs to be corrected, but on the smaller scale, the way that it impacts somebody is that, okay, Paul was arrested on such a crazy charge of espionage, that it became relatively simple to convince people that this was obviously something crazy was going on, but Trevor Reed's family had a lot more difficult time trying to convince people, uh, because there was this sort of, oh, well maybe he did do something wrong.
[01:14:21] You know, maybe, maybe the, the story that the Russians are putting out there is correct as time went on. And as the ridiculous bogus, uh, evidence piled up, everybody. Was able to see the truth of the matter. Um, you know, Paul's story was so ridiculous that we got, uh, more help early on, but there was in the state department, there is criteria that you have to pass basically before the state department officially calls your loved one wrongfully detained.
[01:14:51] And so for us, that was many, many, many months before Paul Paul's case was elevated to the point where enough of those criteria, which are not public, which we don't know, um, were passed. And so finally we started getting that assistance. So during that time, this is the, this is the awful part of it. It's not just a matter of, there's a difference between, uh, you know, like for example, um, a hostage, when he's released gets flown home, the state department pays for it.
[01:15:20] A wrongful detention person has to pay their own way back from, from that foreign government. You know, there, there are things now, I'm not sure that that's going to be how it goes in the, in the future because of the Robert Levinson Act. But there are these little differences, you know, that come into play, but what the really harmful impact of not giving someone that wrongful detention classification is that members of Congress and the public and the media think there must be reasons.
[01:15:47] There must be a reason that the state department and the government knows, uh, maybe that person has. Did do the thing that that foreign country is, is accusing them of because if they didn't, why is the president not speaking out? Why is the secretary of state not speaking out? Why are they not being called wrongfully detained?
[01:16:05] Why, when a member of the media approaches the press secretary, why can't they get them to say those two words? And it, it it's sows seeds of doubt that. Poor person who is being held in that, um, prison who is trying to be strong and courageous, and who feels that their government is going to come and rescue them.
[01:16:27] And doesn't know that their government is actually undermining them every single day that they're not being given the appropriate classification. And that that classification is the trigger to get things like the special presidential Envoy to talk about the case. I couldn't even get access to that office until this process had happened.
[01:16:49] And it was over a year in the making. It was one of the most horrible ordeals that a family could possibly go through. And in fact, it was so horrible that I wrote a guide, a resource guide for families of the wrongfully detained, uh, that, that I have circulated to the, uh, NGOs that we spoke about early, earlier, the James Foley Foundation, Hostage US, Richardson Center, um, to, to tell people, families like me who knew nothing about approaching, uh, anyone in DC had no idea how the state department worked in these sorts of situations, giving them some clues about what I did and how I went about it so that they can follow the same process.
[01:17:33] So you asked what can the state department do differently? My feeling is that. The criteria has improved. Uh, the Robert Levinson Act has improved, uh, the response time and the, uh, the, the robustness of the response. What I would like to see is I would like to see everyone who is arrested, uh, like every American who is arrested overseas and believe me, there are quite a number of them who've been arrested for real things.
[01:18:01] You know, if you're. If you got drunk and, uh, you know, tore up a bar in Mexico, you know, and you're arrested for that, that, you know, there's a, there are some real cases out there, but that criteria needs to come into play right at that time. Right at the time that we find out an American citizen has been arrested immediately, the evaluation about whether this is a wrongful detention or not should go into play.
[01:18:26] And if that American citizen has been arrested under charges of espionage, that should send up a huge, enormous red flag that says there's a very good chance that this is bogus. There's a very good chance that there is no way that this person was actually committing espionage. I feel we should have had a response to Paul's case within days, if not hours of him being arrested, uh, not years, which is basically what it turned out to be.
[01:18:54] Daren Nair: Earlier this year within a few days of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken being sworn into office, he had a call with the families of Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained overseas. You were on that call. What is your impression of Secretary Blinken and how is this different from the previous administration's you've dealt with?
[01:19:19] Elizabeth Whelan: Well it's night and day. Um, I could never, I could never get a meeting with, uh, Secretary Pompeo. I know I'm not even sure how aware he was or how interested he was in the fact that, uh, US citizens were being held abroad. I know that the. Uh, the state department was able to bring home some people from, from different countries.
[01:19:40] And I was thrilled every time somebody, a hostage or a detainee, he came home, but we couldn't help. But notice that Russia as a country was avoided as a topic, um, the Russian foreign policy seemed murky at best. Uh, and we couldn't get a, uh, a strong response, uh, in support of Paul Whelan. And certainly I couldn't get a meeting now.
[01:20:00] I will say that the assistant secretary of state at that time was John Sullivan and he did meet with me and he did show support. And so this is where you get that uneven response, depending on who you're dealing with in government. But when, uh, secretary Blinken, uh, came on and did this group. Call. It was really amazing actually.
[01:20:22] Um, the, the sense of community really, uh, but also just the horror of seeing how many families had been left in limbo by one administration after another, who had not been able to solve the situation who had not put US citizens before policy and allowed all of these citizens just to, to languish in various different countries.
[01:20:44] So secretary Blinken has since then also had a personal call with me. Um, so I have had two interactions with him because I, uh, with COVID was unable to go down to, um, to DC and meet with him in person. Um, I feel he is very interested in transparency and accountability. But I, I remind people I speak with within the government, that transparency is not something that you can just, uh, apply and take away.
[01:21:14] Being transparent means being consistently transparent, letting us know what's going on, uh, letting us know where we stand and how the case is going. Um, you know, for Paul, I never want to put Paul's situation in jeopardy. All of our goals are the same, and that is to see Paul home, to see Trevor home. Uh, and we don't want to get in the way of that.
[01:21:35] But I do feel when a family has been fighting longer than any of the other people who are in government, that they do have a certain amount of right to information, um, and accountability, accountability. Doesn't just mean that, Hey, you know, if things aren't going well, that you say that you're sorry, accountability means stepping up and fixing it means taking.
[01:22:00] Uh, taking the punch, taking responsibility and actually getting it done. I think there's a sense. And you see it often in the business community where people say, well, we're accountable and we'll say, we're sorry, but then we'll just sort of keep on doing what we were doing before. And so I'm asking the U S government to actually, uh, take to heart the meaning of accountability as being that of responsibility.
[01:22:22] Um, we have seen many people who have expressed support for Paul, uh, who are now not in government anymore, and they've sort of washed their hands of the situation and walked away. And we would have thought that if they were really concerned about Paul's situation, about Trevor Reed's situation, that they would keep on fighting, that they would help support the family.
[01:22:42] They would help get things done, even though they're no longer in their position. And so that's what we look at as accountability and responsibility, uh, and. We are, we'll continue to encourage the US government, uh, to interact with families in a useful way, in a helpful way. We don't have to know the strategy, uh, of what the, uh, the government is up to.
[01:23:07] But we do have to understand something of their positioning so that we can help support their, uh, their attempts to get our loved ones home. We are all in this together.
[01:23:21] Daren Nair: You've mentioned some great members of Congress that have helped you and have helped. Paul. I know the Senate has passed a bipartisan resolution calling on Russia to either present evidence or release Paul immediately. Is there anything else the US Senate or House of Representatives should be doing?
[01:23:39] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, um, that's actually the second resolution for Paul that's been passed in 2019 in the 116th Congress.
[01:23:48] Um, I, the, uh, house of representatives passed a unanimous resolution. And so as time went on and his trial happened and he had the medical emergency surgery and all of these other people spoke out the Senate resolution, um, sort of built upon that first resolution. And as you said recently passed, there is now a second house resolution, basically the third resolution for Paul, which is now, uh, uh, obtaining co-sponsors.
[01:24:17] I think we have 37 members of the house signed onto that now. Um, and, uh, I can't remember the number of it off the top of my head. I think it's, um, 3 36 resolution, 3 36. But that's definitely something that if, if people want to, to help and want to support and want to ask their member of Congress to do something, they can ask them to co-sponsor the most recent resolution for Paul Whelan.
[01:24:44] And that is, um, a resolution that is being organized by, uh, Haley Stevens of Michigan representative Stevens. And she, and also representative Pflueger, uh, who is a Texas representative supporting, um, Trevor. They had a press conference recently in July where they, uh, brought, uh, uh, there was a resolution for Trevor that talked about Paul, the resolution for Paul talks about Trevor.
[01:25:10] They are trying to sort of build a coalition of support for both of these fellows. Um, because both are US citizens, both need to come home.
[01:25:19] Daren Nair: What can US President Joe Biden do to help?
[01:25:22] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, he can, uh, he can do what he said, which is, is, uh, not walk on this. We're going to hold him to that. Um, it's a little concerning that it's been three months and I know a lot of other things happen. Uh, you know, Afghanistan being, being one. I mean, obviously we expect the government to turn and do all they can in a situation like that.
[01:25:44] But what we have seen over the thousand days is that is the problem with what is termed bright shiny objects. Um, you know, uh, one thing after another comes along, you know, the latest media sensation, you know, Corona virus, you know, Afghanistan, those are real problems, but they don't suddenly erase the other problems that were already out there.
[01:26:07] And I think what happens is a new administration comes in. We hear all these wonderful statements about, about Paul. I'm sure the Reeds feel the same about Trevor almost immediately. There was this, you know, there were statements being made, press secretary saying this, that, and the other. It was all really wonderful.
[01:26:22] Then we have the summit fantastic. As time goes on and other problems start to build up on top of these two US citizens and their issue. We are constantly afraid. The, the, their problem gets swept away because they're two individuals and they're not thousands or millions of individuals. And this is where I would like to remind the U S government that they're being held is a national security issue.
[01:26:52] It is not about Paul Whelan and about Trevor Reed and what they did or did not do in Russia. And what you know, Russia is trying to accuse them of it is the fact that Russia has two US citizens, that they are holding in prison camps in Mordovia, Stalin, era, prison camps, in Mordovia, Russia for crimes.
[01:27:09] They did not commit in order to extract concessions from the U S government. And that should remain a priority. There is absolutely no reason for that to disappear off anybody's radar. It's an open invitation for other countries to do the same and for Russia to continue to do it, uh, they need to be stopped.
[01:27:28] Daren Nair: So you mentioned bright, shiny objects, and that's absolutely right. Whatever is the media sensation today is what the government focuses on. So it's basically firefighting.
[01:27:39] What can journalists and the media do to help free Paul? What can they do better? So I'm going to assume the first point is exactly what I said for Trevor Reed is to stop repeating Russian disinformation and always ensure you get the U S government side of the argument when reporting on Paul's case.
[01:27:57] Is there anything else that the media should be doing? Well
[01:28:00] Elizabeth Whelan: that's absolutely true. Um, although I have to say that sometimes, um, you know, the stories are so incredible that we're actually glad that some of them get repeated in the Western press because they're so ludicrous that the more reputable journalists call up David and say, this can't possibly be happening, or what do you have to say about that?
[01:28:19] And we have an opportunity to actually clarify whatever, uh, because of course, you know, in Russia, the state sponsored, in fact, I think isn't it all state sponsored media at the moment. So we never quite know how to take some of the things that we see that come out in the press. But I have to say we've had some amazing support from media, uh, based in Moscow who, uh, took great personal risks themselves to report on Paul's case, uh, and to, and to make sure that his story got out.
[01:28:49] And I think that, um, uh, perhaps. It's not even so much uh journalist support. Sometimes we have to remind editors that this is an important story and whether or not it feels sensationalist or not. And how many clicks you're going to get. It's important to continue to shine a light on wrongdoing on this Russian malevolence, this taking of US citizens, uh, and, and to keep holding them to account the media has.
[01:29:17] The power to do this. And I feel they have a responsibility to do it as well, but I'm not going to beat up on the journalists because they really have been wonderful. Um, and they have given a lot of, of support. And they have, um, told Paul's story very fairly, uh, definitely shine a light on, on this lack of evidence.
[01:29:37] Um, and they're trying to report the best they can on his situation in Mordovia. Um, what can they do better? I would just say keep at it, you know, keep asking, uh, the press secretary, uh, what's going to happen?. Uh, I would love to see someone stand up, um, and, and, uh, talk to the white house and ask, you know, it's been over three months, it's been a thousand days that Paul's been held.
[01:30:03] Uh, president Biden said he, wasn't going to walk on this. You know, we'd like to see some stepping up here.
[01:30:08] Daren Nair: So Elizabeth, we're almost at the end of our interview. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?.
[01:30:14] Elizabeth Whelan: Well, of course I had made a little list. And so there were a few things I'd just like to point out. Number one, you brought up the travel advisory, which is at level four right now, and I'm very glad to see it is because anybody right now who goes to Russia or does business with Russia, you are putting yourself at risk and you really need to think that through, uh, 200,000 Americans a year normally before COVID would travel to Russia, uh, any one of you could become a victim.
[01:30:44] Any one of you could be put in jail? Uh, people do say well, perhaps because Paul was, uh, a former Marine. That is one of the reasons that he was arrested. But I honestly think that any tourist is at risk. Paul was there as a tourist. It had been many, many years since he was in the Marines. He was working in a different type of job, a different sort of capacity.
[01:31:06] And he was arrested while trying to help out a friend at a wedding. Please do take these travel advisories seriously. And if you're a business person considering any type of business with Russia, I would look again at Michael Calvey's case and what has happened with him and really reconsider. I hope that, uh, the U S keeps this travel advisory at level four, at least until Paul and Trevor come home.
[01:31:34] And the other thing I'd like to point out, and perhaps this is something that journalists might, uh, think is somewhat interesting and, and want to follow up on. We talk a lot about how president Biden said he wasn't going to walk away from, uh, from Paul and Trevor's cases, but president Putin, also had some words to say, uh, at that summit where he basically said that it was going to be up to the MFA, the ministry of foreign affairs and our state department to sort this out.
[01:32:02] Well, it's been three months and I think it's rather bold of the MFA just to ignore president Putin, uh, and not, uh, take him up on, on this directive and just decide that they can ignore this and not get it worked out. Um, I think, uh, particularly when, uh, there's a possibility that the president might be reelected in this upcoming election.
[01:32:24] Um, I I'm surprised that they would, uh, risk themselves in this way by, by not going ahead and doing as he requested and getting this sorted out with the state department. So I, I hope to see some movement in that direction in the near future.
[01:32:37] Daren Nair: If any of our listeners would like to send a message of solidarity to the Whelan family, or have any questions, please post them on Twitter using the hashtag #podhostagediplomacy, and we will respond. If we get many questions, we will have a separate Q and A episode with Elizabeth to answer them.
[01:32:54] Elizabeth, thank you very much for joining us. We really hope Paul is freed and comes home soon until then we will be right here by your side. Thanks again for joining us.
[01:33:04] Elizabeth Whelan: Thank you so much, Daren really appreciate you letting me talk about Paul's situation and, and what it's like to try to advocate for, for someone in this situation.
[01:33:15] Um, we desperately hope Paul will be home soon so that he can resume his life in the meantime. Uh, thank you so much for your support for the Whelan family, for Paul Whelan and for all the other families and detainees and hostages, it, it means the world to us to have your support.
[01:33:33] Daren Nair: You're very welcome.
[01:33:34] It's an honor. Thank you.
[01:33:42] thank you for listening to this week's episode of Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We're not just a podcast, we're a community. If you're on Twitter and would like to post a message of solidarity to the families, or have any questions for us, please tweet it using the hashtag #podhostagediplomacy, and we'll get back to you.
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[01:34:15] Take care.