By Jennifer Hansler, CNN
Paul Whelan, an American jailed in Russia, called on President Joe Biden to “aggressively discuss and resolve” the issue of detaining American citizens for political purposes when he met with President Vladimir Putin at a summit in late of this month.
“Decisive action needs to be taken immediately” to stop the “kidnapping” of American citizens, Whelan told CNN in an exclusive telephone interview from the Russian labor camp where he is serving a 16-year sentence for a denial of espionage charges vehemently.
“This is not a Russian issue against me; it is a problem of Russia against the United States, and the United States must respond to this hostage diplomacy situation and resolve it as soon as possible, ”he said.
Whelan told CNN that he has “a positive feeling” about the upcoming meeting between Russian and American leaders and that he considered it “a good step in the right direction.”
“I know President Biden and (Secretary of State Antony) Blinken are working to get my freedom and go home,” he said.
Blinken raised the case of Whelan, as well as that of the American detainee Trevor Reed, in his meeting with the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, at the end of May. Biden and Putin are expected to “discuss the full range of urgent issues” when they meet in Geneva, Switzerland, the White House said, including arms control, Ukraine and human rights abuses. Biden has taken a much tougher stance on Moscow than his predecessor, President Donald Trump, and has imposed heavy sanctions in April for his interference in the 2020 U.S. elections, the SolarWinds cyberattack, and his continued occupation. and “grave human rights abuses” in Crimea.
Whelan, who is also an Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. U.S. officials have condemned his sentence and again denied the charges in his conversation with CNN.
“It simply came to our notice then. There was no crime. There was no evidence. The secret trial was a sham, “he said. “This was done solely for political reasons.”
“The more people understand that I am innocent and that no crime of espionage has ever occurred, the better,” Whelan added, noting that he hoped the resolution of his case would be speedy.
Whelan spends his days working in a “shop”
“It’s been more than two years. That’s almost 888 days, which is twice as long as U.S. citizens were held hostage in Tehran, ”he said.
In the labor camp where he is imprisoned in Mordovia (an eight-hour drive from Moscow), Whelan spends his days working in a clothing factory he called a “shop.”
“It’s exactly the same every day,” he told CNN. “We get up at 6. We have 10 minutes of exercise. We have breakfast for about 20 minutes, and then we work all day, we eat maybe 20 minutes, we work all afternoon and then we spend part of the evening after training and during that time we wash clothes, write letters, read books, try to make calls telephone, things of this nature “.
He has a persistent cough and bursitis in his elbow from factory work, he said, adding that “getting medical care here is very difficult.”
“The guards often stop us from going to the medical unit, and then the medical unit is so full of people that it often deviates. And I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges, it’s just getting decent medical care, ”Whelan said.
Whelan, a former U.S. sailor who had lived in Michigan before his imprisonment in Russia, told CNN he is trying to maintain a “positive mental attitude” about the situation. He was credited with writing letters and being able to read books in English, helping his mind to “stay in the right place.”
“I go through it day in and day out,” Whelan told CNN. “It’s something you expect every day to have a resolution, but you know you’re working on everything that’s going on and you expect the best.”