SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - An emotional waiting game awaits a San Diego man, as the US begins engaging Russia on a possible prisoner swap involving his twin brother.
“It was a surprise, a positive surprise,” said David Whelan.
Whelan says while he knew the State Department was working on something, he didn’t know of the prisoner swap offer: his twin brother Paul Whelan and basketball star Brittney Griner for a convicted Russian arms dealer.
“I think it’s extraordinary for the US government to make an announcement about an offer, a concession in this sort of case,” said Whelan.
His brother Paul, a Marine veteran and security executive for an auto parts company, was in Russia for a wedding in 2018, when he was arrested for spying and later convicted in a secret trial. He was sentenced to 16 years in a labor camp. Paul has repeatedly denied the accusations.
“He was a Marine, and they are taught how to be prisoners of war and how to survive in that sort of situation. He has said in his letters that he’s using the training he got in the Marine Corps,” said Whelan.
Whelan says Paul, who’s now allowed to call their parents, has suffered human rights abuses, including a long stint in solitary confinement. He says Paul was denied medical treatment, which led to an an emergency hernia surgery last fall.
“That first week, I was sleepless. It was lots of tears, just because you’re just exhausted,” said Whelan.
His initial emotions have been channeled into a pragmatic mission to bring his brother home.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. I think this is the best opportunity we have been aware of. Hopefully the Russian government will see for their own self interest, it’s a good deal,” said Whelan.
One reason for the optimism is the identity of the Russian prisoner in the proposed swap: Viktor Bout.
“From his perspective, that is a name Paul has known from the very first day he was arrested. The FSB officers that arrested him told him that he was being taken, essentially to extort a concession,” said Whelan.
Years later, US and Russian officials, with a phone call Friday, have begun engaging on the proposed deal. Whelan says he has not yet begun thinking about what it will be like to welcome his brother home.
“That’s one of those things that’s beyond what I’m ready to think about yet. It’ll probably be a hug,” smiled Whelan.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed he spoke with the Russian Foreign Minister Friday, urging him to accept the offer.
Blinken called the conversation ‘frank and direct,’ but couldn't say whether Russia is likely to accept the offer.
A Gofundme campaign has been set up to help with legal expenses and to help send supplies to Paul, including food and medicine.