Paul Whelan, an American convicted of espionage in Russia who has always called himself a political hostage, has been seen in video footage for the first time in three years.
Arrested in 2018 in Moscow, where he had travelled for a friend’s wedding, the former US marine was handed a 16-year sentence after a closed trial.
The US government designates Mr Whelan as “wrongfully detained”.
The video was filmed at a labour camp by Kremlin-backed channel RT.
However, Mr Whelan refused to give an interview.
For his family, in the US and Canada, it’s a first glimpse of him since June 2020, when the BBC filmed his final appearance in a Moscow court.
“It was good to see him again and so see the fight remains in his eyes. It’s good to know Paul remains unbowed,” David Whelan, Paul’s twin, wrote in an email.
In the video, Mr Whelan is seen lining up with other inmates in the prison yard, stitching together industrial clothing in the prison factory and then in the canteen with a trayload of grey-looking food.
He had previously told his parents that he was being “badgered” into participating in “Kremlin propaganda”. In the video, although he seems relaxed and even smiles, he clearly tells the camera crew that he won’t answer any questions.
The video was filmed in May, but only just released.
At the time, he said that prison staff had punished him for refusing to be interviewed, throwing his belongings on the floor and trampling on them.
The RT crew was at the remote IK-17 camp in the republic of Mordovia not long after the arrest of US journalist Evan Gershkovich at the end of March, which led to the rapid exodus of most foreign reporters from Russia.
Without producing any evidence, Russia accused the Wall Street Journal correspondent of espionage. The US government quickly designated him, too, as “wrongfully detained”.
Senior officials have called repeatedly for both men to be released.
From the moment of his arrest, Paul Whelan believed he would soon be swapped for a high-profile Russian convict in the US.
In calls to me from prison in 2020 and 2021, he explained that was why he never appealed against the guilty verdict. He was always upbeat, convinced he would be freed quickly.
But since then, former US Marine Trevor Reed and US basketball player Brittney Griner have been arrested in Russia, convicted and then released in prisoner swaps.
One of those set free by the US was notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The RT video hammers home the idea that Paul Whelan has been “thrown under the bus” by his government. The report’s release, after three months, looks like Kremlin pressure on the US government to make whatever concessions Russia is seeking.
Now in his fifth year as a prisoner, Paul Whelan has talked of feeling abandoned.
When Evan Gershkovich was arrested, on the same charge of spying, the Whelan family felt that Paul was “rattled like never before”, afraid he’d be overlooked again.
Recent speculation has suggested that the Kremlin is demanding the return of undercover agents, known as “illegals”, arrested in the US and Europe, or Russians convicted of cybercrimes.
The US and Kremlin confirm only that they are in touch.
David Whelan told the BBC he thought the US government was moving slowly, still unsure how best to respond.
“Unfortunately, it’s not clear what the US government is waiting for – finding a concession, deciding to use a concession – nor does it help Paul that he has to wait for their action in a labour camp.”
In July, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said his government was prepared to “do anything” to get the two men home, but that there was, as yet, no “clear pathway to a resolution”.
Source: British Broadcasting Corporation