Biden Administration officials met with family members of American businessman and former Marine Paul Whelan on Monday to discuss their strategy for securing his release from Russia, according to the State Department.
A State Department spokesperson said U.S. efforts to bring him home were ongoing, although the official declined to detail those efforts publicly.
“As President Biden said directly to the Whelan family, and as senior officials working on this case said directly to Paul, we have not forgotten him and we will continue to pursue every avenue for his release,” the spokesperson said of the meeting.
Whelan is approaching the four-year anniversary of his Dec. 28, 2018, arrest in Russia on espionage charges that both Whelan and the U.S. government have denied. In 2020, he was sentenced to 16 years in jail.
During a news conference Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the U.S. would be “creative” and “relentless” in its efforts to secure Whelan’s release.
“We’re going to continue to engage in a principled, consistent way with appropriate Russian authorities to secure Paul’s release,” Price said. “It’s a commitment we’ve made to his family. It’s a commitment we’ve made to Paul.”
Whelan’s family said last week that the Biden administration had informed them in advance that Whelan would not be part of the prisoner swap that enabled the release of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner.
A senior U.S. government official previously said the Biden administration had sought to have both Griner and Whelan released in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had served nearly half of a 25-year sentence in the United States at the time of his release.
The official said, however, that Russia has treated Whelan differently than Griner due to the spying accusation against him, and that the White House ultimately had to choose between Griner’s release or no exchange.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, has said he did not “begrudge” the release of Griner, who was imprisoned in February after Russian officials said they found canisters of cannabis oil in her luggage.
“It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom,” Whelan said last week. “As I have often remarked, Brittney’s and Paul’s cases were never really intertwined. It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other.”