The family of Paul Whelan, a man held captive by Russia for nearly four full years, hasn’t heard from him in nearly a week, which is unusual and concerning, according to family members, including Vineyard resident Elizabeth Whelan.
It will be four years on Dec. 28 since Whelan was taken into custody by Russian authorities on what his family say are trumped-up charges of espionage, and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Paul Whelan typically speaks to his parents by phone every few days, but they last heard from him the day before Thanksgiving, Elizabeth told The Times. He has told them if they don’t hear from him for three days, they should contact the U.S. Embassy.
“It’s incredibly unusual for Paul to miss trying to call home on a holiday like Thanksgiving,” David Whelan wrote in one of three emails to reporters this week.
Even more disconcerting is that Paul Whelan missed a significant birthday, David wrote on Wednesday. “This is really out of character, as he knows today is our dad’s 85th birthday. Paul would not miss a birthday call unless he was prevented from doing so.”
Elizabeth said it’s always a concern when the family doesn’t hear from him. “We’re hoping that Russia feels he’s valuable enough to take care of, and whatever negotiations might happen would hopefully include him.”
Paul Whelan’s case has captured the attention of the Biden administration. Elizabeth Whelan has met with President Joe Biden, and has also had a personal call from the president. Paul Whelan’s name was included in a proposed prisoner exchange that would have brought him and WNBA star Brittney Griner home in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. But those negotiations have yet to bear fruit, which is concerning for the Whelan family because of what’s happened with others who are held captive by Russia.
“There was a prisoner from Zambia who was mobilized, and died on the Ukrainian front, which was a horrific surprise for his family,” Elizabeth said. “We can’t count on the Russians to do the right thing.”
In an email sent to reporters by Paul’s brother, David Whelan, he wrote that something doesn’t add up about Paul’s whereabouts. According to the email, the labor colony staff at IK-17, where Paul had been held, say he was moved on Friday, Nov. 17, to the hospital prison. “If this is true, why?” he wrote. “Paul was not complaining of any health conditions that required hospitalization, so has there been an emergency? He appeared healthy and well to the embassy staff.”
According to the email, Paul has always mentioned when he’s been moved to the hospital in the past. “It has usually been without his request or need for medical attention,” he wrote. “And he spoke to our parents a number of times after the IK-17 staff say he was moved, at least as recently as [Nov. 23], and never mentioned it.”
The family is also wondering why he’s not being allowed phone calls. “Is he unable to make calls?” he wrote. “Or is he really still at IK-17, but he’s been put in solitary and the prison is hiding that fact?”
Elizabeth Whelan told The Times that early on in his incarceration, it wouldn’t be unusual not to have contact with her brother, but this is different because of how routinely he had been in contact with his parents.
“With the war in Ukraine, things have been fraught in general at the prisons,” she said. “This sort of thing where they disappear him and don’t tell anyone is a bit more concerning.”
Elizabeth Whelan once again thanked Islanders for their ongoing support. She said Vineyarders have sent cards, letters, and money for Paul’s GoFundMe.
David Whelan finished his most recent email with a concern that prisoners are perhaps being forced into fighting in the war in Ukraine, and they don’t want Paul to see, so they’ve moved him. “But we’re concerned that he may have either some emergency medical issue that is not being disclosed, or that he is in fact still at IK-17, and has been placed in solitary as retaliation for something …”