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Exclusive: Paul Whelan told Blinken being left out of prisoner swap with Russia painted a target on his back

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

(CNN) — Paul Whelan, an American who has been imprisoned in Russia for nearly five years, pressed Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a phone call in August to ensure that he is not left behind again, Whelan told CNN.

“I told him point blank that leaving me here the first time painted a target on my back and leaving me here the second time basically signed a death warrant,” said Whelan, who called CNN on Friday from his remote prison camp in Mordovia. He said he told the top US diplomat that “unless they got me back, it could be quite challenging in the future, especially with my age and the sort of work we have to do from a health and safety point of view.”

Despite his strong words to Blinken, Whelan expressed confidence that work is being done to secure his release, but said he was frustrated at the slow pace and wanted to ensure he wasn’t forgotten amid “other geopolitical issues.” He would like to speak with President Joe Biden “and find out if he will do what he’s promised to do.”

He is aware that the Russians consider him as “high value, so they want something high value in return,” he said.

On their phone call in August, Blinken “told me that he’s working quite diligently and his team is working quite diligently to find a resolution to this situation,” Whelan recounted, describing Blinken as “a person who obviously cares and he cares deeply about the situation.”

“I think everyone’s trying to do the right thing, and I know that this will come to an end at some point. How long it will take I don’t know. But I’m being promised that I won’t be left behind here,” he said.

Whelan – who is also an Irish, British and Canadian citizen – was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. The former US Marine was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020 on an espionage charge he consistently and vehemently denies. He has been designated as wrongfully detained by the US State Department.

Whelan was not included in prisoner swaps that freed fellow wrongfully detained Americans Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner last year. US officials have said that the Russians refused to include him in those swaps for Konstantin Yaroshenko and Viktor Bout, respectively.

Whelan said he believed it was “a mistake” for Biden to swap Yaroshenko and Bout “as quickly as he did.” He also told CNN he knows that the Russians have sought the release of Vadim Krasikov, a Russian ex-colonel serving a life sentence in Germany for murder.

CNN has reported that the Biden administration is working to search for other offers to free Whelan after Russia has failed to respond in a substantive way to an offer presented earlier this year.

“If we can’t make it happen based on what’s available to us now, we’ll need to figure out what that takes so we can bring our people home,” a senior administration official told CNN in August.

“Secretary Blinken remains committed to bringing Paul home,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN on Monday. “The United States has been clear that Russia’s wrongful detention of Paul Whelan is outrageous and he should be immediately set free.”

“We offered Russia a serious proposal for Paul’s release and will not stop working on his case until he is reunited with his family,” the spokesperson said.

Americans shouldn’t travel to Russia ‘if they value their freedom’

Whelan warned Americans against traveling to Russia “if they value their freedom.”

“This is not the time to come to Russia,” he said.

He told CNN he was aware of the arrest of a Russian-American journalist, Alsu Kurmasheva, telling CNN that “it’s on the media here.”

Whelan also receives some information from his family about Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist who has been declared wrongfully detained in Russia. “There’s nothing on the news here that I can see” about Gershkovich’s case, he said.

“I’m sure he’s going through the same sorts of rigor that I went through, days and days of boredom and then being questioned and interrogated and what have you, with false promises of being released for a confession and all that sort of thing. Having done it before, I know the conditions and the way they do things. They’ll spin it out as long as they can, to try to pressure on him, as well as on the US government to do something,” he told CNN.

In his fourth exclusive call to CNN, Whelan said that the conditions in his remote prison camp have deteriorated in the three years he has been detained there.

“The economy’s not doing well and the camp is in need of maintenance,” he said, noting that the heat hasn’t yet been turned on.

“We’re hoping that some repairs to the hot water system and heat radiators will be taken care of quickly,” he said.

He said the prison shop no longer carries fresh fruit or vegetables and “canned goods have been discontinued.”

“The food that we’re provided is watered down. It’s onions, potatoes, cabbage,” Whelan described. “The soups that we have every day are just water … soggy macaroni, stale bread, things like that.”

Whelan was able to recently get a flu shot, he said, after asking for one during his first call with Blinken last December.

“It took a while for people at the top on both sides to negotiate a flu shot,” Whelan recounted to CNN. “It’s not something that is given freely and widely to prisoners, even the medical people here were surprised that it had been provided by the prison service.”

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