Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who has been detained in Russia for more than four years, was able to call home for the first time in nearly two weeks, his brother said on Tuesday.
Mr. Whelan has been serving a 16-year sentence on what the United States says are fabricated charges of espionage. The State Department has designated him “wrongfully detained,” meaning he is effectively considered a political hostage.
Mr. Whelan’s brother expressed concern about his whereabouts after he failed to make a daily phone call to their parents on March 30. The penal colony where he is serving his sentence, IK-17, is about an eight-hour drive outside of Moscow.
The family did not hear from him again until Monday. They were erroneously led to believe that Mr. Whelan had been moved to a prison hospital, causing them to worry, but he was actually sequestered within IK-17, his brother, David Whelan, said in an email update.
“The prison administration claims that the phones have been out of order from March 30 through to April 9th or 10th,” David Whelan wrote. “Russia’s infrastructure appears so brittle it could be true,” he said, while leaving open the possibility that the prison was toying with access.
David Whelan said his brother appeared to be aware that Russia had recently detained another American, Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
“Paul’s fear of being left behind a third time was apparently palpable in his conversation with our parents yesterday,” his brother wrote, referring to the cases of Brittney Griner and Trevor Reed, two other Americans who were detained in Russia and released separately last year.
Mr. Whelan’s family rejoiced after both releases, but said his continued detention made them question whether his case was truly a priority for the Biden administration.
When Mr. Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested on what his family said were fraudulent and politically motivated charges of assault, was released in April 2022, David Whelan said his brother had been happy over the development, but had asked their parents why he was left behind.
“Imagine having to field that question from your child?” he added.
Ms. Griner, a basketball star, was imprisoned on drug charges. Because Mr. Whelan was accused of spying, Russian officials treated his case differently and refused to include him in the prisoner swap that freed her in December, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has said.
The Biden administration has denounced the detentions of both Mr. Gershkovich and Mr. Whelan, and Mr. Blinken demanded they both be released in a rare phone call with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, earlier this month.
It remains unclear whether another prisoner swap could be negotiated to secure their freedom. David Whelan noted on Tuesday that he and his sister, Elizabeth, could not conceive a scenario in which the United States would strike a deal with the Kremlin for another American to be released that did not also free their brother.
“It would be an unconscionable betrayal,” he said.