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Secretary of State Blinken says he spoke this week with Paul Whelan, former Marine imprisoned in Russia

Blinken revealed the phone call at an event centered on arbitrary detention.
diplomacy russia american relations
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Paul Whelan.Pool via AFP - Getty Images/AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that he spoke this week with Paul Whelan, the former Marine and businessman who the U.S. government says is being wrongfully imprisoned in Russia.

Speaking at an event centered on arbitrary detention, Blinken said he spoke with Whelan by phone Monday.

"Yesterday, as it happens, I spoke on the phone with Paul Whelan," Blinken said.

"Our intensive efforts to bring Paul home continue every single day. And they will until he and Evan Gershkovich and every other American wrongfully detained is back with their loved ones," Blinken said in his remarks Tuesday, also referring to Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who the U.S. also says is wrongfully imprisoned in Russia.

Gershkovich, 32, was detained in March on espionage-related allegations that he and his employer deny.

Blinken did not detail the contents of his phone call with Whelan.

A State Department spokesperson said in a statement that Monday's call was the third time Blinken has spoken with Whelan.

"The Secretary conveyed that the United State continues to work intensively to bring Paul home," the spokesperson said in response to NBC News' request for further details about the call. "The United States is committed to securing the release of Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich."

Whelan, 53, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 on allegations of suspicion of spying. In 2020 he was sentenced to 16 years in jail. Whelan and the U.S. government have denied the espionage allegations.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden met with Whelan's sister and called his parents to discuss efforts to bring him home.

“Our citizens are not human bargaining chips. They are not political pawns,” Blinken said in his remarks at Tuesday’s event. “If any country wrongfully holds any of our people, we will hold them accountable.”

Blinken also pointed to the Biden administration's efforts to "bring home the remaining hostages in Gaza," noting that the White House is working with countries in the region on a proposal for hostages' release.

"Here’s the truly heartbreaking part: Unfortunately, this is part of a rising trend. Increasingly, states — but also nonstate actors — are wrongfully detaining people, often as political pawns," he said. "This practice threatens the safety of everyone who travels, conducts business, who lives abroad."

The Biden administration had been seeking both Whelan's and WNBA star Brittney Griner's release from Russia during previous negotiations, but ultimately Russia agreed to release only Griner in 2022.

"Paul and the Whelan family recently showed the entire country the meaning of generosity of spirit in celebrating a fellow American’s return while Russia continues its deplorable treatment of Paul as a bargaining chip," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement in December 2022, weeks after Griner was released.