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Paul Whelan seeks freedom from ongoing imprisonment

Viktor+Bout%2C+a+Russian+arms+dealer+nicknamed+the+%E2%80%9CMerchant+of+Death%E2%80%9D%2C+is+escorted+into+the+United+States+as+a+prisoner+after+being+detained+in+Thailand+two+years+prior+following+an+international+sting+operation.
Drug Enforcement Administration
Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”, is escorted into the United States as a prisoner after being detained in Thailand two years prior following an international sting operation.

Since his arrest on Dec. 28, 2018, US Marine Paul Whelan has remained detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, where he is currently serving a 16 year sentence for espionage, a charge he and the US federal government state he was wrongfully convicted of.

Whelan was in Russia as a tourist attending the wedding of a fellow ex-Marine in Moscow. He’d been to Russia multiple times on vacation prior to his arrest and holds British, Canadian and Irish passports due to family ties.

“[However,] Mr. Whelan was indeed found with an FSB officer, a flash drive containing ‘state secrets’ and $1,200 in cash at Moscow’s Metropol, near the Kremlin, in 2018 and thrown in jail,” according to an article on dailymail.co.uk.

His situation was recently brought back into the public eye when his family reported that he was attacked by a fellow prisoner at the Russian labor camp he is located at.

“Whelan said he ‘was assaulted by a Turkish prisoner, 50 years old, who has recently arrived at the prison and has anti-American leanings’”, according to an article on cnn.com. “Whelan said he was working at a factory…when the other prisoner struck him in the face ‘with his closed fist’ and then tried to strike him ‘with his open hand.’”

The person that Whelan had originally thought to be a close friend of ten years to him was actually an FSB (Russia’s national security department) agent, who reportedly handed Whelan the flash drive in the hotel he was staying at.

“However, rather than trying to bribe [his friend,] Ilya Yatsenko, Mr. Whelan maintains he thought he was a friend who had just handed him a flash drive containing vacation photos and was also reimbursing him for a loan,” according to the article on dailymail.co.uk. “Just three days beforehand, Mr. Whelan took a photo of Yatsenko at dinner and titled it ‘comrades’ when he posted it. He believed they had been friends for ten years and had even visited the Russian’s hometown.”

Many believed that he would be returning home from Russia within a few days, given his case lacked enough evidence to imprison him for 16 years.

“In his first detailed interview since his arrest, Mr. Whelan [had] described life locked up alongside murderers and thieves as a ‘very, very grim existence’ and called on his four governments to do more to get him out,” according to an article on bbc.com. “He had been banking on some kind of prisoner swap soon after sentencing. That was [five years] ago.”

In the meantime, during Whelan’s time in prison, another American citizen, female basketball player Brittney Griner, was arrested and convicted for possession of cannabis oil in her luggage. In 2022, she was both sentenced to prison and released after the US traded a Russian named Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”, a Russian arms dealer, weapons manufacturer and former Soviet military translator, who had been in US custody until he was traded for Brittney Griner’s release alone.

“It’s an outrage that [the government] sprang notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange, without even also winning the release of as-unjustly ‘convicted’ Paul Whelan, who’s been languishing in Russia since 2018 with a decade-plus left to serve,” according to an editorial on nypost.com.

President Biden had announced shortly after Griner’s release that he was unable to secure Whelan in the deal trading off the Bout, as Russia would not budge on the matter.

“This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American – Brittney Griner – or bringing home none,” according to an article on cnn.com.

Some believe that the trade was a good one, as Brittney’s being arrested was unfair and she did not have enough drugs on her to be considered illegal, meaning she was only arrested so Russia could have someone to trade for Bout.

“I don’t think [Viktor Bout] is as dangerous as people think he is,” said Tyler Limcaco ‘26. “Honestly, he may not even be able to do much now because he’s extremely old. In my opinion, it was a fair trade because Brittney Griner was innocent and only arrested as a bargaining piece for Russia.”

In contrast, the Biden Administration received backlash to its decision to trade a basketball player for Viktor Bout who, at one point, was considered the second most dangerous man alive next to Osama Bin Laden.

“This is not a deal. This is not a swap. This is a surrender,” said former national security adviser John Bolton on nypost.com. “Terrorists and rogue states all around the world will take note of this, and it endangers other Americans in the future who can be grabbed and used as bargaining chips by people who don’t have the same morals and scruples that we do.”

Despite Biden’s public statement, some have expressed doubt that the government is still fighting for the people imprisoned in Russia, whether it is because they forgot or because not enough people care.

“From what I’ve seen, I do feel like the Biden Administration could’ve pushed a bit more to get [Paul Whelan] home,” said Daniel Choi ‘25. “I feel like they should’ve committed more to getting them both home instead of just Brittney.”

Paul Whelan, however, tries to maintain optimism while he waits for the Biden Administration to address his problematic situation.

“I remain positive and confident on a daily basis that the wheels are turning [to get me home],”  said Paul Whelan in an article on cnn.com. “I just wish they would turn a little bit more quickly.”

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About the Contributor
Tomas Galioto, Staff Writer
My name is Tomas Galioto. This is my first year on The Arrow staff and I’m currently a page editor. I took an interest in journalism because I like writing, and more importantly, I like writing things that other people can read. In my offtime, I play guitar, play video games, workout, or spend time with friends.
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