President Biden brokered a prisoner exchange with Russia to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday, but the deal was criticized because it didn’t include Marine veteran Paul Whelan, who is detained in a Russian prison with no clear timetable for release.
Mr. Whelan has been in Russian custody since 2018, when he was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. The U.S. government and Mr. Whelan’s family say those charges were manufactured.
Mr. Whelan’s family has pushed the Biden administration to be more aggressive about getting him released. His fate had become linked to Ms. Griner, a basketball superstar who had been arrested for bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis oils, as advocates sought freedom for both.
On Thursday, Ms. Griner was freed when the Biden administration completed a prisoner exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
News that Mr. Whelan’s freedom would be left out of the deal was met with a sharp rebuke from critics.
“Forgive me if I don’t see this as a day of celebration and rejoicing. All that happened is that celebrity culture won out over those who put their lives on the line for the celebrities,” said Allen West, a former Republican congressman from Florida.
SEE ALSO: Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout: WNBA star freed in U.S.-Russia prisoner swap
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican, also lambasted the Biden administration, saying it was looking to score political points by focusing attention on the more high-profile prisoner.
“So a basketball star is released, we can celebrate, but what about Paul Whelan? An American unjustly detained for years. Might not be high profile but he is innocent. This is a dangerous road,” Mr. Kinzinger posted on Twitter.
“Surely an arms dealer is worth two innocent people,” he wrote.
Rep. Maya Flores, Texas Republican, simply asked on social media, “What about retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan?”
Bring Our Families Home, an organization that advocates for the families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas, called Ms. Griner’s return “long overdue.” However, the organization also said its heart breaks for the Whelan family.
“Paul Whelan has been let down and left behind at least three times by two Presidents. He deserves better from his government, and our Campaign implores President Biden to urgently secure Paul’s immediate return using all tools available,” the organization said.
At a press conference Thursday, Mr. Biden insisted his administration has not forgotten about Mr. Whelan.
“We never forgot about Brittney. We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whalen, who’s been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” Mr. Biden said in remarks at the White House. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. … Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
In a statement, Mr. Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, congratulated Ms. Griner on her release but said his family is “devastated” over the administration’s failure to release his brother.
“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he wrote.
“Despite the possibility that there might be an exchange without Paul, our family is still devastated. I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly 4 years of this injustice,” David Whelan said.
“How do you continue to survive, day after day, when you know that your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison?” he added.