For the past nine months, Edgartown artist Elizabeth Whelan has stayed out of the spotlight following her brother’s arrest in Russia on alleged spying charges, working behind the scenes with politicians and ambassadors to secure her brother’s release.
But now, after months of her brother’s detention being extended every few months, she feels the public needs to be aware of what’s going on.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, was visiting Moscow to attend a wedding in December. The family noticed he was no longer in communication on Dec. 28, which they said was out of character for him, even while traveling. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Whelan at the end of December, and formally charged him at the start of the year. Conviction on a spying charge can result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
“At this point I think everybody knows he is not a spy, that this is some sort of geopolitical trade scenario; they want Russians back or sanctions released,” Elizabeth Whelan told The Times.
After her brother’s arrest, Whelan headed to the nation’s capital to try and get help, feeling diplomacy was the best way to secure her brother’s release.
She began by reaching out to senators and Congress members from Michigan, Paul’s home state, but she quickly found an ally in U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, D-Massachusetts. Keating represents the 9th Congressional District, which includes Martha’s Vineyard.
Keating serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and chairs the Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment subcommittee, which deals with Russia.
Speaking to The Times on Wednesday, Keating said anyone who heard Whelan’s story would want to help, calling Paul Whelan’s imprisonment an “outrageous action.”
Keating has spearheaded the effort to bring Paul Whelan home, co-sponsoring House Resolution 552, which calls for Paul’s release.
Speaking to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Keating said the Russian government has refused to provide evidence to substantiate the espionage charges. He asked for support from the U.S. government, and the U.K., Ireland, and Canada — all countries Paul Whelan has citizenship from.
“Elizabeth has been a terrific advocate for her brother, and has suffered something no family should have to suffer,” Keating said.
Elizabeth Whelan said she is hopeful the resolution approval is one more way to put pressure on Russia. She also found that when an American needs help, the government finds common ground to work together. “No matter what political party you are, a good congressperson helps their constituents no matter what,” Whelan said. “When the chips are down and an American is in trouble like this, you find this partisan nature goes by the wayside.”
She’s also seen lots of public support from friends and family, but also from people who have never met Paul. “The support of the community when you’re going through something as bizarre as this is so helpful,” she said.
Elizabeth and Paul’s twin brother David are keeping track of their brother’s situation on a blog, freepaulwhelan.com. Elizabeth also plans to call every single member of the U.S. House of Representatives to urge their support.
While no timetable is available yet for the resolution, Keating expects it to be voted on in the next few months. A similar resolution in the Senate, Senate Resolution 308, also calls for evidence of Paul’s alleged espionage or his immediate release.
Meanwhile, Paul Whelan has claimed his innocence, saying he was set up when a Russian FSB agent came into his hotel room and slipped a flash drive into his pocket. Whelan says he never looked at the flash drive, and did not know it was in his pocket until he was arrested.
On Sept. 17, during an appearance in a Russian court, Whelan held a note up claiming he was being denied consular access and medical treatment, and was assaulted by a doctor. “This case is an absurd provocation, no evidence of crime exists!” the note reads.