Rare video shows American Paul Whelan inside Russian prison

U.S. efforts to free the jailed Marine veteran remain at an impasse.

August 29, 2023, 6:18 PM

Russian state media has released rare footage showing Paul Whelan inside a notorious prison camp, providing the first publicly available video images of the imprisoned American in more than three years.

Broadcast on Monday, the recording shows Whelan, a Marine veteran, wearing a black uniform and hat among other inmates in what appear to be various areas within IK-17, a maximum-security penal colony in Mordovia -- a remote, wooded region of Russia.

It was not clear when the video was taken but it comes amid continuing, high-level U.S. efforts to get him freed.

In one scene, Whelan works at a sewing machine and speaks to a reporter, telling him "Sir, you understand when I say I can't do an interview, which means I can't answer any questions." Other shots show Whelan eating at a table and holding up what appears to be an identification card.

American Paul Whelan, who is being held in Russian jail, is seen here in these video grabs from RT, a pro-Russian news outlet.

The news segment, aired by Russia Today (RT) -- a state-funded propaganda outlet -- also appears to show security camera footage of Whelan meeting with diplomats through a glass window.

Whelan’s twin brother David said in an interview with ABC News that Paul told his family that the video was recorded in May, that prison officials had attempted to force him to participate in the segment, and that they were angry “he had not played ball.”

“They retaliated against all they damaged a number of his personal possessions. They stole a number of items from his personal property,” David Whelan said, adding that his family had asked the local prosecutor to investigate.

Still, he said he was still grateful that he was able to catch a glimpse of his brother for the first time since his sentencing.

"Today was the first time I've seen what he really looks like since June 2020," David Whelan said in an earlier email to ABC News.

In his interview with ABC, David Whelan added that he was heartened by how his brother appeared in the tape.

“He seems to look healthy when he stares down the camera at the end of the video. You can see his strength, and I think it's contempt for the Russian propagandists,” David said. “I think seeing him has helped all of us realize that he's resilient and we need to keep helping him so that so that he comes home.”

American Paul Whelan, who is being held in Russian jail, is seen here in these video grabs from RT, a pro-Russian news outlet.

It's unclear if Moscow intended to send any kind of message to the U.S. by allowing cameras inside the penal colony.

Negotiations aimed at freeing Whelan, who the U.S. considers to be wrongfully detained by Russia, have dragged on for years. In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed that the administration had put forth what he called a "serious proposal" to Moscow for Whelan's freedom, but sources familiar with negotiations say Russia has shown no real interest in the offer.

Blinken spoke with Whelan by phone earlier this month. Sources familiar with the call say the secretary reassured him that the U.S. was doing everything it could to bring him home.

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, June 15, 2020.
Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

"It was reassuring to see that he remains -- and this is to use his brother's words -- 'unbowed,'" White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said about the video. "Paul continues to show tremendous courage, that does not change that his conservative circumstances are truly unacceptable, and we will continue to be very clear about that. Russia should release him immediately and that is something that again, we have been very consistent about."

Whelan was arrested in 2018 and charged with espionage -- allegations Whelan and the U.S. say are completely fabricated.

After spending 18 months in pre-trial detention, Whelan was convicted by a Russian court in June 2020.

He is currently one of two Americans considered by the U.S. government to be wrongfully jailed by Moscow. The other is Evan Gershkovich -- a Wall Street Journal reporter accused of espionage, which the U.S. also denies.

ABC News' Cindy Smith contributed to this report.

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