President Biden calls Paul Whelan's sister after mounting pressure from family

Paul Whelan has been detained in Russia since 2018.

July 8, 2022, 8:01 PM

President Joe Biden called the sister of Paul Whelan on Friday to reaffirm his commitment to bringing the former Marine home from Russia, according to a White House official, marking the first time the family has been contacted by the president.

"Today, President Biden called Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan who has been wrongfully detained by Russia since 2018," a White House official said.

The call comes two days after his sister voiced her disappointment on Twitter after learning that the president and vice president had called the wife of Brittney Griner, a WNBA star who has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17.

"Still looking for that press release saying @POTUS has spoken to anyone in OUR family about #PaulWhelan, wrongfully detained in #Russia for 3.5 years," Elizabeth Whelan said on Twitter on Wednesday.

PHOTO: Paul Whelan, a former US marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, stands inside a defendants' cage as he waits to hear his verdict in Moscow on June 15, 2020.
Paul Whelan, a former US marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, stands inside a defendants' cage as he waits to hear his verdict in Moscow on June 15, 2020.
Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

During their call on Friday, Biden "reaffirmed that he is committed to bringing Paul home as soon as possible, and the U.S. government will continue its efforts to secure the release of Paul as well as Brittney Griner and all other Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained around the world," a White House official said.

"The U.S. government will continue to be in regular contact with Paul’s family, and with the families of other Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, to provide support and assistance and keep them updated on efforts to secure the release of their loved ones," the official said.

Paul Whelan's twin brother, David Whelan, told ABC News that the family wasn't expecting the call -- and that his sister was on a noisy New York street when it happened. He said the call is especially meaningful for their parents.

On Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that White House officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been in contact with Elizabeth Whelan.

ABC News' Rachel Scott pressed Jean-Pierre on what it takes to get a meeting or phone call from the president to try and help someone get released from Russian custody and how this administration can assure the Whelan family that their pleas are being heard and taken seriously.

"We want to assure them, the Whelans and the Griner family, and all other ... U.S. nationals who are being wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad that this president is doing everything that he can to make sure that they come home safely," Jean-Pierre said. "We're going to use any – every means that we have. Clearly, we cannot negotiate in public. That is not something that we're going to do. But, we're committed to making sure they all get home safely."

PHOTO: Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, is escorted for a hearing to decide to extend his detention at the Lefortovo Court in Moscow, on Oct. 24, 2019.
Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, is escorted for a hearing to decide to extend his detention at the Lefortovo Court in Moscow, on Oct. 24, 2019.
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Paul Whelan, 52, a corporate security executive, was arrested in December 2018 while visiting Moscow for a friend's wedding and charged with espionage by Russian intelligence officials. In June 2020, he was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison camp.

Paul Whelan and American officials have denied the charges, and his family has continued to call for his release.

In April, another former Marine -- Trevor Reed -- was freed after being imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years as part of a prisoner swap agreed upon between the U.S. and Russia.

Reed, 30, was arrested in Moscow in the summer of 2019 while visiting his Russian girlfriend. Russian authorities accused him of assaulting officers while being driven to a police station after a night of heavy drinking. He was convicted by a Russian court in mid-2020 and sentenced to nine years in a prison camp.

"The real fear that you have that just kind of sits on you like this weight the whole time, is that, you know, you could be there forever," Reed told "Good Morning America" in an interview that aired Friday.

Griner's trial is ongoing. The two-time Olympic gold medalist pleaded guilty this week on drug charges in a Russian court, saying that vape cartridges containing hashish oil were in her luggage unintentionally.

Her legal team told ABC News in a statement on Thursday that her "guilty" plea was informed by a discussion with her Russian attorneys.

If convicted, Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison.

Amid renewed attention on Whelan's case, his family remains hopeful that President Biden will be able to bring him home.

"I think he is a good and kind person, and he will make the decision to bring Paul home when there is an opportunity to do so," David Whelan said on Friday's episode of ABC's daily news podcast "Start Here."

ABC News' Cindy Smith contributed to this report.

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