Paul Whelan, a former Novi resident, has served three years of a 16-year sentence in Russia.

Paul Whelan, a former Novi resident, has served three years of a 16-year sentence in Russia.

Photo provided by the Whelan family

Family of Novi man in Russian prison remains hopeful for early return

By: Brian Wells | Novi Note | Published January 13, 2022


NOVI — When Novi resident Paul Whelan made the journey to Russia in December of 2018 for a wedding, he didn’t know it would be years before he could return to the United States.

On Dec. 28, 2018, his friend, who worked with the Russian Border Guard, showed up at Whelan’s hotel room and gave him a USB drive that he said contained some pictures from a previous visit, said David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother.

Soon after, Russian security services arrested Paul Whelan and charged him with espionage because of what was allegedly on the drive, which he hadn’t had a chance to look at yet, according to David Whelan.

Paul Whelan was held in a detention facility in Moscow for the next 18 months, until a trial was held. Because of an article in Russia’s criminal code, the trial was held in secret. No one was allowed to attend, including U.S. Ambassador John Solomon or the Whelan family.

Paul Whelan was found guilty and given a 16-year sentence. He was then transferred to a labor colony in the Republic of Mordovia, said David Whelan.

“He has been trying to survive and keep his morale up as he has argued through his lawyers that he is innocent,” David Whelan said.

The conditions in the labor camp where Paul Whelan sews buttonholes aren’t great, but they could be worse, David Whelan said. His brother is fed three meals a day, though it is not well-balanced nutrition. Things like nuts, dried fruits and vegetables have to come from outside the prison.

According to David Whelan, shortly after arriving at the labor camp, Paul Whelan began to accrue demerits. But because he can’t speak Russian, he didn’t know what they were for. He asked for medical treatment and was sent to a hospital, where he was kept for two weeks without receiving any care. When he returned to the prison, because of his demerits, he was put in solitary confinement for a month.

“It’s really a matter of survival,” David Whelan said. “There’s a baseline where it could be worse, but it’s still not as good as it could be.”

Since arriving at the labor camp, Paul Whelan has been able to make regular calls home, which David Whelan said has been good for his morale, as well as his parents’ morale.

But with Paul Whelan having served three years of his 16-year sentence, his family remains hopeful for his freedom. While David Whelan works with the media to raise awareness of his brother’s situation, their sister, Elizabeth Whalen, continues to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of U.S. Congress and President Joe Biden’s administration.

Through her efforts, several resolutions have been introduced and passed in support of Paul Whelan. U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, who David Whelan said has shown “amazing support,” did not return a request for comment.

Even though the family is on the outside looking in, David Whalen said they’ve noticed more interactions between the United States and Russian governments since Biden took office. The increased interactions have given them hope that people are starting to have conversations in which Paul Whelan’s situation might be discussed.

“I think we are hopeful that Paul will not have to serve the entire 16 years,” David Whelan said. “It would be hard to continue to do this every day if we didn’t have some sort of hope.”

If he is granted his freedom, in addition to the issues related to having been held against his will, Paul Whelan will have a lot of adjustments to make, his brother said. If released soon, he will have to adjust to life in a pandemic. His job with BorgWarner was terminated in 2019, and the lease on his Novi apartment has ended.

“He’s really just going to come back and have to start from scratch,” David Whelan said.

Contact Brian Wells at (586) 498-1081, (248) 291-7637 or