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Former US Marine Paul Whelan Unfairly Detained in Russia

Paul Whelan is a former United States Marine who has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018. Accused of espionage and detained at a Moscow hotel, Whelan allegedly possessed a flash drive that contained classified information. He was also accused of being a high-ranking member of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Whelan has maintained his innocence and stated that he was set up  by an acquaintance who gave him a flash drive that he believed contained family photos, according to NPR. Following his arrest, an American automotive parts supply company confirmed that Whelan worked for their company as the director of global security, according to NPR.

Solitary Confinement of Paul Whelan

It is clear that Whelan did not receive a fair trial as evidence was held in secret and he has experienced harsh conditions while in Russian confinement. According to Detroit News, “The Whelan family has condemned multiple examples of corruption at the labor colony IK-17 where he is serving his sentence and where Paul has complained about alleged human rights abuses and violations of Russian law. Earlier this year, he was held in solitary confinement for a month, during which time he was not permitted to exercise or shower.”

Diplomatic talks have been in place for a while to get Paul Whelan released. What is especially disheartening about Whelan’s case – other than he was clearly convicted without due process – is that other Americans detained in Russia have been released through prisoner exchanges while Whelan has not.

No Prisoner Exchange Coming for Whelan

Just like Whelan, another former Marine was also unreasonably detained in a Russian prison. In the summer of 2019, Trevor Reed went to Russia with his girlfriend to learn to speak Russian and was arrested for intoxication and faced a nine-year sentence in prison. Reed spent around three years in prison in Russia and was released in April 2022 as part of a prisoner swap for Russian Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted in the United States for conspiring to import cocaine.

[Related article: Prosecuting Russia for Human Rights Violations in Ukraine]

Another American was released from a Russian prison in December of 2022, and Paul Whelan was excluded from this prisoner swap as well. In this case, Brittany Griner who was convicted in Russia of having vape canisters that contained cannabis oil in her luggage and sentenced to nine years in prison was swapped for a Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Bout is known as the “merchant of death” who was sentenced to 25 years in the U.S. for being found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans and U.S. officials by providing anti-aircraft missiles and aid to a terrorist organization.

In regard to why Whelan was not part of a prisoner swap, his brother David Whelan said that the U.S. is in a difficult position, stating “if Russia is only willing to release Paul Whelan for a Russian spy being held in America and, as U.S. officials have said, currently no such prisoners exist.”

Know – Before You Go

Russia is clearly a dangerous and volatile place for Americans to visit. This is even more heightened in the Russia-Ukraine conflict that has increased tensions between the United States and Russia. Traveling to Russia for former military members seems to be especially hazardous – and the case of Paul Whelan is living proof.

Any time traveling abroad, it is important for Americans to be knowledgeable of State Department travel warnings for the countries that will be visited. It is also important to research the culture, customs, and laws of the foreign country to avoid unnecessary trouble.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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