MOSCOW—The U.S. Embassy in Russia said Monday it is worried that the health of American prisoner Paul Whelan is deteriorating in a Moscow prison—as a Kremlin official signaled renewed interest in a possible inmate exchange.
Whelan, 49, a private security executive from Michigan, was arrested in Moscow in December, accused of espionage, and thrown in the notorious Lefortovo prison to await trial. He claims he was in Russia for a friend’s wedding, was not involved in intelligence work, and was framed by someone who gave him a flash drive he thought contained holiday photos.
Last month, the ex-Marine pleaded for President Trump to help free him. When Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met last week, if they discussed Whelan or any other kind of prisoner exchange, it was not mentioned in official accounts.
But a senior Russian official on Monday signaled that a swap is high on the government’s agenda.
Three days after the G20 summit, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov spoke about “small steps” Moscow might take to improve relations between Moscow and Washington. One of them, he said, could be a prisoner exchange.
Specifically, Ryabkov called on the United States to release a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko—who was sentenced in 2011 to 20 years in a federal prison for drug trafficking “for an American or Americans who are serving a sentence here.”
The idea of an exchange for Yaroshenko’s release is nothing new. In 2017, Ryabkov floated the idea of releasing 13 Americans jailed in Russia for the pilot.
But as Russia's ambassador to the U.S. noted last year, there are dozens of Russian citizens in American lockups—so why is Moscow so eager to get Yaroshenko back instead of, for example, arms dealer Victor Bout?
“Yaroshenko had close ties with Russian special services, so he is our priority,” Sergei Markov, an analyst close to the Kremlin, told The Daily Beast on Monday.
According to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service, there are eight U.S. citizens serving prison terms in Russian jails. That figure does not include Americans currently under investigation, kept in miserable conditions in pre-trial detention, like Whelan.
Officially, the U.S. remains non-committal on the question of a swap.
“The U.S. government continues to closely follow all cases of imprisoned U.S. citizens in Russia,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “We do not read out our private diplomatic discussions.”
American diplomats did go public, though, with a complaint about how Whelan is being treated. In a tweet written in Russian, the U.S. embassy said that while Whelan has received “basic medical service” at Lefortovo, he needs better care than he can get there.
“Paul Whelan’s health condition has grown worse,” the tweet said. “Our request to use a consultation of an invited doctor has been denied. The well-being of U.S. citizens living abroad is our priority.”
Whelan’s twin, David Whelan, told The Daily Beast he hoped the volley of statements might mean his brother is coming home soon.
“The U.S. Embassy has never mentioned any type of a swap,” David Whelan said. “And we have not advocated for any particular diplomatic means–swaps or sanctions–we felt it was important to leave it to the professionals.”
A few weeks ago, Paul Whelan complained in court that his Russian investigator, Aleksei Khishnyak, “has insulted my dignity, he threatened my life.” And Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told The Daily Beast that his client was denied medical care and not allowed to shower for two weeks in May.
“Paul is clearly a political pawn. I wouldn’t have him spend another day in a Russian prison if there was a way to free him and bring home,” Zherebenkov said.
Whelan is not the only American who could be part of any swap. American investor Michael John Calvey is under house arrest in Moscow.
Former firefighter Gaylen Grandstaff spent nearly two years awaiting trial on charges he smuggled psychotropic drugs before he was suddenly freed—an all-but-miraculous outcome in Russia, where courts acquit fewer than 1 percent of cases. A crew of journalists from ABC News was following Grandstaff’s case, and correspondent Patrick Reevell believes that had an impact. “Grandstaff thinks he was released because we and others were present in court and were asking questions,” Reevell told The Daily Beast. “This case shows in particular the problem you get with people being held for such extremely long times in pre-trial detention even before they are convicted.”
Poor medical care is an ongoing issue in Russian jails. A senior prison observer and founder of Russia Behind Bars group, Olga Romanova, reported a terrifying story about the death of Nikolai Kolyubakin, an inmate of a prison camp known as IK-2. “He could not eat, threw everything up, lost 40 kilos, suffered a high temperature. But doctors kept saying that he was simulating his illness,” Romanova told The Daily Beast. “They killed him in the most trivial awful way by ignoring his condition.” According to the Council of Europe, Russia has the highest death rate in prisons, six deaths per 1,000 inmates in 2016, while the average rate in the European Union is 2.8.
It’s not clear Whelan could even be part of an exchange at this point. “Before swapping Whelan for Yaroshenko, the court has to find my client guilty first.” Zherebenkov said. “If they follow the legal procedure.”
Betsy Woodruff contributed reporting from Washington