Whelan family meets President Biden

The family of Paul Whelan met with President Joe Biden Friday.

Family members of Paul Whelan met personally with President Joe Biden on Friday along with the family of WNBA player Brittney Griner — both individuals have been imprisoned in Russia.

Paul’s sister, Island artist Elizabeth Whelan, has sought the assistance of the Biden administration in having Paul released from custody so he can return home to his family. In late July, multiple news agencies reported that Biden had offered a deal to free Paul from custody. 

Elizabeth Whelan issued a statement on Saturday about the meeting.
“It was an exceptional honor to meet with President Biden on Friday to receive an update on the efforts the US government is making towards obtaining my brother Paul Whelan’s freedom from wrongful detention in Russia,” she wrote. “I am grateful for the continual outreach and info-sharing from the White House, National Security Council, Department of State, and the office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Together with members of Congress, we will continue to fight for my brother Paul and all other Americans wrongfully detained.”

In 2020, Paul was sentenced to 16 years in a maximum-security prison colony after being convicted on espionage charges issued by the Russian Federation. Griner, a WNBA star, was sentenced to nine years in a prison colony after being convicted on drug trafficking charges by a Russian court.

Friday’s White House visit was not the first time Elizabeth Whelan has communicated with the president. In July she told The Times about a surprise phone call she received from Biden while she was walking in New York City. 

“Hostage-diplomacy is a national security as well as a humanitarian issue; when hostile foreign nations take Americans and hold them as pawns, we must work together with vigor to reunite those wrongfully detained with their families, and deter these countries from continuing this malign practice,” Whelan wrote. “I have complete faith that the Biden administration is fully engaged and using the tools at their disposal. Now we need Russia to also engage in good faith, and free Paul Whelan.”

Later in the day, Elizabeth Whelan said in an email that she was already in Washington, D.C., where she attended a panel discussion by the Congressional Task Force on hostage and wrongful detainees. “I spoke alongside Jason Rezaian (journalist and former hostage), Diane Foley (James W. Foley Legacy Foundation), Sarah Levinson (daughter of deceased hostage Robert Levinson), Neda Shargi (sister of Emad, current wrongful detainee), Nizar Zakka (former hostage) and Anaise Kunimba (her father is Paul Rusesabagina, also wrongfully detained),” she wrote. “A number of other members spoke, including Rep. Haley Stevens, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. Issues covered ranged from current policy and family experiences to personal stories, a very moving and worthwhile gathering.”

Whelan wrote that she seeks in-person updates from officials. “…I was surprised and pleased to have the White House reach out to me, and offer the opportunity to discuss efforts to free Paul with the president.”

Whelan wrote that the details of the meeting with President Biden “need to remain confidential for various reasons, most importantly because this is an active case. And the outcome of any effort by the U.S. requires the active participation in a reasonable, good faith manner by the Russian authorities, which seems to be something of an issue at this time.”

Meanwhile, Biden spokeswoman Karine Jean-St. Pierre also issued a statement about the meetings with Elizabeth Whelan and the Cherelle Griner family. “The President held the meetings to reiterate his continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely. He asked after the wellbeing of Elizabeth and Cherelle and their respective families during this painful time. The President appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Brittney and Paul from those who love them most, and acknowledged that every minute they are being held is a minute too long,” Jean-St. Pierre said. “Today’s meetings come after earlier meetings and conversations that the President, his national security team, and the State Department have held with the Whelan and Griner families to keep them updated on efforts to secure the release of their loved ones as quickly as possible. We all admire the courage of the Whelan and Griner families in the face of these unimaginable circumstances, and we remain committed to reuniting them with their loved ones.”


  1. The sooner people stop using the words ”wrongfully detained” the better your chances of getting those two released. It might be better for those two to apologize to the authorities for breaking their laws. Whatever hostile tactics Russia uses, and they do, to suggest these two are innocents is not only a blind spot denial but foolish.

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