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Prisoner swap fuels push on White House for other Americans’ release

by ERIC TUCKER THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | May 5, 2022 at 3:46 a.m.
Elizabeth Whelan, sister of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Russian prisoner Paul Whelan, speaks with reporters before a news conference with families of Americans currently being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas in Lafayette Park near the White House, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON -- The release of Trevor Reed from a Russian prison last week has led relatives of American captives in foreign countries to lobby the White House for help.

Elizabeth Whelan learned in an early-morning phone call from U.S. government officials that Reed was on his way home but that her brother, Paul, also imprisoned in Russia, was not. She says she uttered words that "cannot be repeated," threw her phone onto the sofa and knew she'd have to call her parents -- in their 80s -- to break the difficult news.

Whelan's brother is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges that his family says are bogus. The U.S. government also considers Whelan's detention unjust, and officials have called on Russia to release him.

Once "we finally calmed down" later in the morning, Elizabeth Whelan said, the family recognized that "we need to get in touch with the [Reeds] and let them know we're not upset about Trevor coming home. We're upset about Paul not coming home."

Reed's release in a surprise prisoner swap triggered similar mixed emotions for the families of Americans wrongfully detained overseas. It has also emboldened them. They hope to build off that burst of momentum and employ the same publicity tactics that worked for the Reeds.

"I do think that the fact that they couldn't get them both out at the same time has re-energized that effort, and I hope it brings back the attention to all of these cases," Whelan said.

Family members of American captives in countries including Venezuela, Iran and Rwanda gathered outside the White House on Wednesday to plead for the Biden administration's attention and to launch a new initiative to get their loved ones home. Several also urged the administration to consider additional prisoner swaps like the one that brought home Reed, who was exchanged for a convicted Russian drug trafficker.

Everett Rutherford, whose nephew, Matthew Heath, is jailed in Venezuela, said the Biden administration needs to display "courage" and "moral fiber." He said "no one in Congress will ever bash" President Joe Biden over a deal that gets a wrongfully jailed American home. Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal, was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela and accused by President Nicolas Maduro of being a terrorist and spying for Donald Trump.

"And we need action from the man who occupies the house behind me," Rutherford said, referring to Biden.

Biden met at the White House on Monday with the parents of Austin Tice, an American journalist abducted in Syria in August 2012.

The following day, the State Department announced that it had reclassified Brittney Griner, a WNBA star imprisoned in Russia on a drug-related charge, as wrongfully detained.

  photo  Elizabeth Whelan, sister of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Russian prisoner Paul Whelan, speaks at a news conference alongside families of Americans currently being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas in Lafayette Park near the White House, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
 
 
  photo  Elizabeth Whelan, left, sister of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Russian prisoner Paul Whelan, holds a photo of her brother as she stands alongside Joey Reed, father of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and recently released Russian prisoner Trevor Reed, before a news conference with families of Americans currently being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas in Lafayette Park near the White House, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
 
 
  photo  Elizabeth Whelan, left, sister of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Russian prisoner Paul Whelan, speaks with Joey and Taylor Reed, father and sister of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and recently released Russian prisoner Trevor Reed, before a news conference with families of Americans currently being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas in Lafayette Park near the White House, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
 
 
  photo  Elizabeth Whelan, sister of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Russian prisoner Paul Whelan, speaks at a news conference alongside families of Americans currently being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas in Lafayette Park near the White House, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
 
 

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