Paul Whelan, a retired U.S. Marine currently imprisoned in Russia, was assaulted by a fellow inmate on Tuesday, according to his brother.
In a press statement shared with The Detroit News, David Whelan said his 53-year-old twin brother had been able to contact their family after the incident and recount the attack he'd endured. David Whelan said his brother recounted sitting at a sewing table in a prison workshop at around 1:30 p.m. Moscow time when a recently arrived prisoner began to obstruct his work.
"A new prisoner blocked part of the production line and Paul asked him to move out of the way. After repeated requests, the prisoner hit Paul in the face, breaking Paul's glasses in the process, and attempted to hit him a second time," David Whelan's statement on the attack read.
According to the statement, the attack occurred in a workshop area of the prison that the guards do not enter, and "Paul was at the mercy of this prisoner." The American inmate was able to stand up from his workspace to block successive blows by his assailant, and other prisoners eventually intervened to break up the altercation.
The Russian state-owned TASS news agency corroborated the attack in a Wednesday report, but claimed prison staff intervened to break up the fight.
Paul Whelan holds U.S., British, Irish, and Canadian citizenship. After a bad-conduct discharge from the Marine Corps in 2008, he went on to work as a corporate security executive for a Michigan-based international auto parts manufacturer. He was traveling in Moscow in December of 2018 when he was detained by Russian authorities on espionage charges. He was convicted in a Russian court in July of 2020, and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
In his statement for The Detroit News on Tuesday, David Whelan shared his family's concerns about his brother's well-being as he continues his prison term at the IK-17 penal facility in the western Russian Republic of Mordovia.
"Paul is a target because he is an American and anti-American sentiment is not uncommon among the other prisoners," he told the news outlet.
"It is too early to know whether they will take steps to ensure his safety in the future, both from this prisoner and others who may decide they have nothing to lose by attacking Paul."
David Whelan said prisoners have access to "various sharp implements" in the prison workshop where his brother was attacked on Tuesday, and expressed concern about similar or, potentially, even worse attacks.
Biden Admin Seeking to Free Whelan, Others
The U.S. State Department considers Paul Whelan to be a wrongfully detained U.S. citizen and the Biden administration continues to negotiate for his release, as the five-year anniversary of his detention nears.
Last year, the Biden administration arranged a deal to release Russian national Viktor Bout in exchange for the release of Brittney Griner, a WNBA basketball player who was arrested in Moscow. Mr. Bout was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States after being convicted on arms trafficking charges, while Ms. Griner was imprisoned in Russia after being convicted for a drug offense. The Biden administration said it had sought Mr. Whelan's release as part of the Bout-Griner swap agreement, but that the Russian side refused.
The U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, visited Mr. Whelan in prison in September.
The Biden administration and U.S. lawmakers have also pushed for the release of Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who had been covering Russia and who was detained in March of this year on spying charges.
Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American citizen who works for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), has also been detained in Russia since June, and was formally arrested and charged last month with failing to register as an agent of a foreign government. The U.S. State Department has yet to designate Ms. Kurmasheva as a wrongfully detained U.S. citizen, despite requests for such designation by her family.
At a press conference earlier this month, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the U.S. side has to gather the appropriate facts before it could make such a determination about her detention. He said the U.S. side hadn't yet established consular access to meet with Ms. Kurmasheva as her case proceeds through the Russian court system.