David’s twin brother, Paul, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018, on what his family and the U.S. government say are trumped-up charges of espionage. Convicted in a secret trial, he’s serving a sixteen-year sentence in a Russian penal colony.

 Since the invasion of Ukraine, David writes, “about 120 prisoners [there] have been recruited and headed off to the war.” In December, the U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner was released from a camp in the same region east of Moscow in a prisoner exchange. But there’s no sign that Whelan will follow her to freedom soon, because that trade and another earlier last year freed the Russians in U.S. prisons that Moscow wanted most: drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko and arms dealer Viktor Bout. Russian media had previously suggested one of them might be exchanged for Paul.

Whelan on trial in Moscow in 2019. At the time, Russian media suggested he might be exchanged for two high profile Russians in American prisons, but they’ve since been traded for other captives. The only remaining option on the table is an assassin held in Germany—something the Germans have already ruled out.

“The U.S. tried to persuade Russia to swap both Griner and Whelan for Bout, but Russian officials would not budge on the matter,” CNN reported. President Biden was quoted as saying that “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s.”

 Biden added that “while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We never give up.” But David Whelan says the family has been “struggling with hope” ever since.

The twins, their brother Andrew, and sister Elizabeth were raised in Ann Arbor. After Griner’s release, former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw posted about Whelan’s plight on nextdoor.com, with photos of the twins as children. There’s a family connection: Laidlaw’s wife, Andi, “was our French teacher at Clague,” David Whelan writes.

While many replies were sympathetic, others pointed to a Wikipedia page that documents misrepresentations in Paul Whelan’s educational and work history—and also claims that he arrived in Russia carrying $80,000 in cash.

David says his brother had 80,000 Russian rubles, which a “horribly unreliable Russian news source” reported as dollars. It was actually “about $1,200,” he writes. “Paul had gotten some money out to pay for the wedding caterer, since the groom, Paul’s Marine friend, had not realized he’d have to pay cash for the restaurant.”

He has corrected the Wikipedia page, only to see the error restored. Such “repetition without verification or corroboration” is another “grotesque aspect of all this,” he writes. “Paul is unable to respond to these misstatements—lies?—and by the time he is freed, they will be widely accepted by people who care less for the truth than they do for ‘winning’ online, whether in a social media brawl or by creating clicks on their media platform. Paul will never be able to undo the damage.”

David says that the conditions of his brother’s imprisonment haven’t changed: he works six days a week in a clothing factory. Because he’s classified as a flight risk, he is awakened and photographed every two hours at night and has to check in every two hours during the day—“which has been made harder,” David writes, “since the prison has banned watches and wall clocks.”

Since many prisoners were released to fight in Ukraine, the camp is less crowded, David writes. But there “is also less food provided to the prisoners, and fewer food items to purchase from the prison commissary or the nearby green grocer who delivers to the prison.”

To pay for Paul’s prison needs, the family set up a “FreePaulWhelan” GoFundMe account that at press time has raised more than $68,000. The “incredibly generous” response, David writes, will enable the family to support Paul “for many more years of imprisonment. 

“It’s what allows us to send him fresh fruits and vegetables … or medicine, which can only be bought in Moscow,” David writes. Even over-the-counter cold medications and painkillers must be bought in the Russian capital, along with “books or paper and envelopes and stamps for his letters.”

Because the Whelans have “no trusted friends or lawyers” in Russia, the purchases are often made by staffers at the U.S. embassy. They have “stayed on top of Paul’s case, as well as the dozens of other Americans held in Russian prisons that are not [classified as] wrongly detained,” David writes appreciatively. “Especially after the start of the Ukraine war, there is no way we could have supported Paul effectively on our own … The U.S. Embassy makes sure the money we send them gets to Paul’s prison account and on his telephone card. They deliver his quarterly 20kg packages to him and visit him as often as they can. If we had to rely on the Russian authorities, I expect we’d see a lot of the corruption that has led to Paul’s medicine being stolen by guards and for other things we send him to disappear once they reach the prison.”

Ed and Rosemary Whelan moved to Manchester after the children finished high school. They “seem to be doing as well as they can,” David writes. Their “dad turned 85 in November 2022, mum, 83 in December. They make sure they are home and by the phone every day between noon EST and 2 p.m. EST in case Paul can call (the time changes depending on daylight savings, which Russia doesn’t observe).”

Their parents never know if it will be a mundane call about the weather or about “being put into solitary, a hospital without a health concern, being locked out of the barracks in the cold for no reason, or an injury in [the prison’s] unsafe workshop (he almost got a needle through his finger when someone accidentally stepped on his machine’s treadle as they walked by). Picture that stress, every day for nearly 1,500 days [that Paul has been imprisoned], and try to picture the change that would bring to your own life?”

David encourages sympathetic Ann Arborites to send letters and cards—not packages, because Paul is allowed only four per year and the family sends those—to share what’s happening in the city and, “if they knew him, remind him of that connection.” The address is: Paul Whelan, American Citizens Services/PNW, Consular Section, 5430 Moscow Place, Department of State, Washington, DC 20521-5430. Since it’s a U.S. address, no special postage is needed.

According to a December New York Times report, the only other prisoner the Russians have offered to exchange for Whelan is an agent who assassinated a Chechen separatist in Berlin. Germany has already ruled that out. The family’s only hope now, David writes, is that “someone in Moscow brings Paul’s injustice to an end, and that it happens while our parents are alive.

“Time is the biggest obstacle at this point to their reunion and Paul’s freedom. Unfortunately, despite the US government’s best intentions, we all wait for Paul’s freedom to come at the hands of those who imprisoned him. The people in the Kremlin have all the time in the world.”