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As Brittney Griner comes home, one man continues to fight for his brother's return

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Brittney Griner is back in the U.S. this morning. After 10 months in Russian custody, the WNBA star was released in a high-profile prisoner swap. U.S. negotiators tried to make the release of another American part of the deal, but those efforts failed. Paul Whelan has been held in Russia since 2018. He's a former Marine. And he was convicted in Russia on espionage charges, charges the U.S. government says are baseless. Here's National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby talking to NPR yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN KIRBY: Our efforts were designed to get both of them home. That was the goal. And we offered different permutations of deals to the Russians with that as our desired outcome.

MARTIN: Joining us now is the brother of Paul Whelan, David Whelan. Thank you so much for being with us.

DAVID WHELAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Must be a bittersweet moment for your family, celebrating Brittney Griner's release, obviously, but knowing your brother couldn't also come home.

WHELAN: It is hard. And we were very grateful to the White House for giving us a little bit of advance notice so that we could, you know, take in the news and really sort of process some of that grief and disappointment privately rather than, as we had to in April, publicly.

MARTIN: When were you made aware that was - that it was a possibility?

WHELAN: It was late on December 7 in the afternoon out here in California when I heard.

MARTIN: And, I mean, you've been through this before. Do you calibrate your hopes? How do you manage that?

WHELAN: I think you try not to let your hopes get too high. And I expect that this time, because of the announcement by the U.S. government back in August, when Secretary Blinken talked about the substantial proposal to bring Paul and to bring Brittney home, that we may have let our hopes get a little bit high. I think even Paul was thinking already about where he would live when he got back home. And I think we probably will not make that mistake again.

MARTIN: Do you think that your brother had a better chance of getting out as part of a pair with Brittney Griner in this case?

WHELAN: I don't know that there is a better or worse scenario. I think all of these cases, whether it's Paul and Brittney in Russia or Majd Kamalmaz in Syria or Siamak Namazi in Iran - I think all of these cases are essentially individual and running on their own track. And so it was very good of the U.S. to try and get them both home. It makes sense to me that they would want to get both at the same time if they could because, you know, those are the only two wrongfully detained Americans in Russia at the moment. But at the same time, they're individual cases, and so it's completely understandable that they would not be able to accomplish that because each case has its own requirements.

MARTIN: As you note, each case is different, and your brother is facing espionage charges in Russia, which, again, U.S. officials say are baseless, but it does make his case a lot more complicated. What do you know about the charges against him and how the U.S. is trying to counter them?

WHELAN: Well, I think the Kremlin has created a theater, and that is all this really is, is that Paul was set up, and he was entrapped, you know, run through the Russian legal system, such as it is, and came out the other side with the label of espionage and spy put on him. But I don't think anybody takes that seriously. I don't even think that the Russian government takes it seriously. It's merely a label that they can then use to extract a concession from the U.S. government. And the Kremlin is a bully, and so they want parity, and they will wait now, I think, until they have their own spy captured and in U.S. custody and then use Paul as a trade for that.

MARTIN: He has been in prison for four years at this point. Trevor Reed, another former Marine who was being held in Russia, was released this past spring. And now Griner's release. I know it's hard to criticize the people who hold the fate of your brother in their hands, but are you satisfied with the U.S. government's efforts to free him?

WHELAN: I am. And I would criticize them if I felt that they deserved it. But I think that President Biden in particular and his staff, Secretary Blinken, National Security Adviser Sullivan, have done an exceptional job of changing the dynamic for wrongful detainees, for their families. And I don't think the U.S. government is where it needs to be, and it started behind the curve, but it is getting better at handling wrongful detention cases, in particular handling Paul's case, I think. You know, giving us advance notice was a great example of that. Calling Paul so that he didn't learn about his being left behind again - the U.S. Embassy did that rather than him learning it on Russian media. All of these are steps forward.

So I think that they are doing what they can. But we're not dealing with a terrorist organization; we're dealing with a sovereign nation-state. And as long as Russia and China and Iran and Syria and Egypt and other countries are taking Americans hostage, the U.S. government's going to face this very difficult position of how to get people back with very limited resources.

MARTIN: How is he doing? When's the last time you talked to your brother?

WHELAN: I haven't spoken to him since October 2018, but he was able to call our parents yesterday and express the disappointment, which I think he is - is completely understandable. And I think he's probably recalibrating his own expectations and hopes now and trying to figure out how to continue to survive. And surviving isn't living, but it's something, and we will try and continue to support that.

MARTIN: David Whelan, the brother of Paul Whelan, an American who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

WHELAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.