WASHINGTON – As the number of coronavirus infections in Russia increases exponentially, Paul Whelan’s family is more terrified than ever about his fate.
The 50-year-old Michigan man has already spent more than 16 months in a Moscow prison on espionage charges amid escalating concerns about his physical and mental health.
Now, Whelan and other Americans detained by hostile governments face a new threat, as prisons around the world become breeding grounds for COVID-19.
“You think, ‘Well, it can't really get any worse’ ... and then the pandemic comes,” said David Whelan, Paul’s twin brother.
“From what we understand, the PPE (personal protective equipment) that prisoners are given is a face mask and an onion a day. I guess the onion is for vitamin C or something,” David Whelan said.
President Donald Trump has long touted his success in securing the release of Americans held abroad, and State Department officials have used the pandemic to ratchet up pressure on some foreign governments to free detained Americans.
"If you are wrongfully detaining Americans during this time, and they become infected and die of coronavirus, we will hold your government strictly responsible," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at an April 29 press briefing. "All wrongfully detained Americans should be released immediately."
But Pompeo isn't the only diplomat to seize on COVID-19 as an opening for prisoner negotiations – nor have other governments been shy about highlighting the danger of coronavirus infection in American prisons. The Bureau of Prisons has reported 2,100 coronavirus infections among prisoners and 320 cases among staff. At least 42 inmates in the U.S. have died from COVID-19.
Last week, Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, posted an open letter to the U.S. State Department, Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons, pleading for the release of Russians who have committed non-violent offenses and have underlying health conditions.
"Their life and health are under the threat," Antonov wrote in his letter posted on Facebook.
Similarly, Iranian officials have said they want to negotiate a prisoner swap with the U.S.
“We hope that as the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease threatens the lives of Iranian citizens in the U.S. prisons, the U.S. government eventually will prefer lives to politics,” Ali Rabiei, an Iranian cabinet spokesman, said on Sunday, according to an Iranian outlet. He said Iran was ready to talk without conditions, but the U.S. had not responded.
A State Department spokesman did not respond directly to Rabiei's remarks, but said the Trump administration continues to prioritize the release of Americans detained in Iran and elsewhere. The spokesman, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said Iran had agreed to extend a medical furlough for Michael White, an American Navy veteran who contracted COVID-19 in an Iranian prison in March.
After White became infected, he was transferred into the custody of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which acts as a diplomatic mediator between the U.S. and Iran.
"We remain concerned for Mr. White’s health, as well as for the health and safety of all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained in Iran," the spokesman said.
A spokesman for White's family said his mother spends every night wishing for her son's safe return. He is a cancer survivor, so his health was already a major concern for her.
"She lives on pins and needles," said Jonathan Franks, the spokesman. White is still dealing with the "after-effects" of his COVID-19 infection, and his "return to the United States is particularly urgent" in light of the pandemic, he said.
Iran was hit early and hard when the novel coronavirus began spreading across the globe. To date, it has reported more than 100,000 infections and 6,600 deaths, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker.
Russia has become a hot spot more recently – reporting 11,656 new cases on Sunday alone. Overall, Russia has 220,000 reported infections and more than 2,000 deaths. Critics say the death toll is likely much higher than that, and it's unclear what's happening inside Russia's prisons.
Amnesty International has warned of a looming catastrophe – saying the Russian penitentiary system is already overcrowded, with poor ventilation and inadequate medical care and lax sanitary conditions.
“Many prisoners already have poor health, they are in penal colonies hundreds of kilometers from home and away from civilian hospitals," Natalya Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s researcher for Russia, said in a March 31 statement. "Urgent measures must be taken to prevent a potential catastrophe."
On April 28, the Russian news agency Interfax reported 271 cases of coronavirus among employees of the federal penitentiary service and 40 cases among prisoners.
David Whelan said Russia has closed its prisons and courts to outside visitors, meaning U.S. Embassy officials have not been able to visit his brother even as his trial began in late March. He said Paul mentioned getting a face mask and his daily onion ration in a note he sent through his lawyers; the note asked for help obtaining some legal documents for his trial.
The Russian government has accused Whelan of espionage; his family says the charges are absurd and flat-out false. The State Department and U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow have also questioned Russia's spying allegations and expressed concern about his treatment.
"We also continue to monitor Mr. Whelan’s case closely and to press for fair and humane treatment, unrestricted consular access, and access to appropriate medical care," said the State Department spokesman. "We will continue to raise Mr. Whelan’s case at every opportunity and will continue to press for access to the court hearings, which have been closed to the public up to this point."
David Whelan says he has not seen any evidence of increased pressure from the Trump administration on the Russian government to release his brother amid the pandemic.
"It sounds a little bit like empty words to me," he said when asked about Pompeo's threat to hold foreign government's accountable for COVID-19 cases.
In at least one case, however, Trump's ramped-up pressure campaign has borne some fruit: On March 19, the president announced that Amer Fakhoury, a naturalized American citizen from Lebanon, was on his way home to New Hampshire after negotiations with the Lebanese government.
"It was a big thing. Very big," the president said, noting that Fakhoury has late-stage cancer and needed medical treatment in the U.S.
"He would have died had he stayed there," said Celine Atallah, a lawyer for Fakhoury's family.
When the virus began to spread in Lebanon, Atallah said his four daughters "became terrified. They were crying all the time."
Now, they're still worried about his health but relieved he is getting cancer treatment back in the U.S., she said.
Atallah said she's thrilled the Trump administration is making it a priority to get Americans released from hostile governments, but argued that the U.S. should demand the same from allies – including Saudi Arabia, which is holding at least two U.S. citizens.
"If they are truly our allies, they should act like it and immediately send our citizens back home," she said.