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David and Paul Whelan

Held Hostage

"Sir, can I have a translator, please … so I can understand what is happening in this court?"

by Jan Schlain

From the April, 2019 issue

That was Paul Whelan, speaking from a glass cage in a Moscow courtroom in March. In the clip broadcast on Russian TV, he looked agitated and disheartened. A onetime Ann Arbor kid, he'd unexpectedly found himself a pawn in a global chess game.

Russia's state-controlled news agencies called Whelan a spy caught red-handed. U.S. media quoted officials dismissing that idea--and speculating that he was just unlucky to be in Moscow at a moment when Russia wanted a prisoner to exchange. A few weeks before Whelan's arrest, Maria Butina had pled guilty to acting as a Russian agent while cultivating the NRA and other conservative groups.

"There is no handbook or even government guidance on what to do in a situation like this," emails Whelan's twin brother, David. A law librarian in Toronto, David has become the family spokesman to take the pressure off their parents, who now live in Manchester. Older brother "Andrew was already in touch with the U.S. Embassy, so he took on the consular connections," David says, while sister Elizabeth--"an incredible networker"--contacted Congress and set up a GoFundMe.com account to help cover Paul's legal expenses.

Their mother, Rosemary, was a librarian at what was then the Ann Arbor Public Library. Their dad, Edward, was a metallurgist at the AMAX research lab on Huron Pkwy. "We played soccer in the Ann Arbor rec league (our dad coached) and I think had a typical, unstructured sort of childhood," David emails. "We were both Boy Scouts for our teens, but when we hit the Explorer level, I went into Law Explorers and he went into Law Enforcement Explorers. He's remained in law enforcement and security related fields ever since." Paul was a Chelsea police officer and a Washtenaw County sheriff's deputy, served in Iraq as a Marine, and for the last couple years has been corporate security director for auto parts maker BorgWarner.

David told the Detroit Free Press that he was "very surprised" to learn,

...continued below...


after Paul's arrest, that he'd been court-martialed in the Marines. But he wasn't at all surprised that his brother had passports from Canada, Ireland, and Great Britain as well as the U.S. Since they were born in Canada to British parents--and their grandfather came from Ireland, citizenship in all three countries was easy to get.

"We have all, practically forever, thought about a much broader world than our home town," he told the Observer. Rosemary Whelan volunteered for International Neighbors, helping women from other countries feel at home in the U.S. "Paul and I were often along on those luncheons, interacting with people from all over the world," David writes.

BorgWarner is still paying Paul's salary, but the family doesn't know what they may be doing to help secure his release. But volunteer attorney Ryan Fayhee, a veteran of the Department of Justice, has "become a trusted advisor for the family," David writes.

"We don't know what costs Paul will face and we don't know what his financial situation is, since we don't have a Power of Attorney," he adds, because the FSB, Russia's counterintelligence agency, won't allow him to sign one. "He draws a bit of money each month for jail supplies (toilet paper--which is rationed by linear feet, if you can believe it--and razors and things like that) but we're not clear on who is paying for his lawyers."

No one in the family has been allowed to talk to Paul, but according to his court-appointed Russian lawyer he had gone to Russia to help visitors get around during a friend's wedding. A Russian friend came to his hotel room, ostensibly to give him some photos on a USB thumb drive. According to the lawyer, before he had a chance to look at it, FSB agents burst into the room and arrested him, claiming it held classified documents.

At the March hearing, the court extended Paul's detention another ninety days. David says the family has "had great support--including weekly phone conferences--with the U.S. Embassy staff in Russia. But there is no information flow from the U.S. government to our family outside of the consular connection. We don't know what the State Department is doing, what the FBI is investigating, or even if anyone is doing anything."

His parents, David says, are "doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances. It is hard to have a child wrongfully arrested, in a foreign country, and realize that you're helpless. They hope, as we all do, that his government will work to gain his freedom."

The wedding was originally scheduled for September, David says. When it was moved to December, Paul "was concerned that Mum and Dad would be left alone over Christmas." Their mother broke a hip last year, and he worried that "they might try to shovel or slip on ice again.

"That was one of the last conversations I had with him before he went to Russia; he was far more concerned about my parents than the Russians."     (end of article)

[Originally published in April, 2019.]

 

 
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