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Exclusive: Paul Whelan urges Biden admin to take ‘decisive action’ to secure his release as he surpasses 2,000 days in Russian custody

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

(CNN) — Detained American Paul Whelan marked another grim milestone this week as he surpassed 2,000 days in Russian custody, telling CNN that it was “just an incredible amount of time” to spend in detention “for a crime that never occurred” as he urged the Biden administration to take “decisive action” to bring him and fellow detained American Evan Gershkovich home.

“When you think of 2,000 days, how long that actually is, how many years, how many months, it’s an incredible number,” said Whelan, who called CNN Friday exclusively from his remote prison camp in Mordovia, Russia.

“You go to university to earn a bachelor’s degree – that’s four years. You’re generally in high school for three or four years. Even people go into the military, and they serve four years. So when you think of five and a half years, it’s just an incredible amount of time,” he said.

Whelan, who has been declared wrongfully detained by the US State Department, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges he has consistently and vehemently denied.

While he believes that the US government has taken his case seriously, the ex-Marine told CNN that he wants it to take it “more seriously.”

“There should be decisive action taken,” Whelan said. “The US needs to go out and do something – fill up Guantanamo Bay with Russian officials, arrest Russian spies, do something that makes the Kremlin sit up and take notice and say, ‘Okay, yeah, right, now it’s time that we’re gonna get Evan and Paul back and then we want back what you’ve got of ours, and we’ll call it a day,’” he described.

“Until decisive action is taken, until there’s a strong response to this sort of behavior, they’ll keep grabbing people like Trevor (Reed) and Brittney (Griner) and Evan and others,” he said. A slew of other Americans – Gordon Black, Alsu Kurmasheva, and Ksenia Karelina – have been arrested in recent months, but have not been designated as wrongfully detained by the US State Department.

Whelan said he was aware that Gershkovich’s trial is scheduled to begin behind closed doors in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg next week. Gershkovich, who has been declared wrongfully detained, has also been charged with espionage, which he denies.

Whelan speculated that “it could be an important milestone in his case, as well as mine” because “the Russians have generally wanted convictions in these cases, so they can claim legitimacy, regardless of the facts.”

“People here don’t say that they’re going to trial. They don’t say they’re going to seek justice. They say they’re going to get a sentence, they’re going to be sentenced. And that’s it. There is no criminal justice system here. There is no judicial system. It’s just a system that the government has operated for many years, putting people in prison for all sorts of dubious charges and dubious events. And in my case, that’s 100% true, and I’m sure in Evan’s case, it’s 100% true. But people go to trial here and they’re automatically guilty, and then they’re given a sentence, and that’s it,” he said.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the US government “will continue to work to bring home Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan every day.”

“It’s something that we are constantly working on and constantly pursuing,” he said at a State Department briefing last week. “We put a substantial offer on the table to secure the release of Evan and Paul Whelan some months ago, as we said publicly; we’re continuing to work to secure their release. We don’t talk about the details of that publicly, as has always been the case, but it is one of the Secretary and the President’s highest priorities.”

A State Department official told CNN Friday that “2,000 days is far too long for Paul to be wrongfully detained in Russia,” adding, “our hearts go out to Paul and his family, who feel the pain of separation in a way that very few people have experienced.”

In the meantime, Whelan remains detained in a remote prison camp in Mordovia – about eight hours away from Moscow – where he does manual labor in a clothing factory.

“Everything is dusty and dirty and nasty. And you do everything you can just to stay cool and just to stay clean,” he described to CNN. “The food we’re served is horrible. We really do rely on personal purchases to stay healthy. Medical care is nil. There is no dental care at all.”

“It’s the worst environment you can imagine. I mean, it’s unbelievable that anyone could even consider this human rights. It’s nothing that you can get used to,” Whelan said.

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