Nalvany’s death leaves Canadian imprisoned in Russia concerned for prospect of freedom

The death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a remote penal colony last month has left Canadian citizen Paul Whelan wondering if the Kremlin will ever let him walk free. 

“Hearing that someone as high profile as Navalny ended up dead in a secure prison facility, it makes me wonder how safe I am,” Whelan told CBC News Thursday during a phone call from the maximum security prison camp where he is serving a 16-year sentence after a Russian court convicted him on espionage charges in 2020.

Whelan, an Ottawa-born U.S. national who also holds British and Irish citizenship, is a former corporate security executive and U.S. marines veteran. 

He was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 while he was in Russia to attend a friend’s wedding. The 54-year-old has insisted he is innocent and was set up, while the U.S. government has fervently denied that he is a spy.

In a surprise call to CBC News foreign correspondent Briar Stewart in London, Whelan expressed hope that a deal could be reached to secure his release. But he said Navalny’s death — which Western governments have blamed on the Kremlin while Russia claims it was due to natural causes — shows that the fate of high profile prisoners, like him, can change in an instant.

“If the Russian government decided they didn’t want me to leave or they wanted to pressure my four governments, they could either poison me, make me quite ill, stage an accident or do any number of things that could go wrong and lead to my death.”

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David Whelan, the brother of Canadian-born former U.S. marine Paul Whelan, says his brother’s ‘resilience is shaken’ as he serves 16 years in a Russian penal colony on espionage charges.

‘Cautiously optimistic’ about freedom

Whelan reached out to Stewart with the help of the U.S. embassy in Moscow a day after receiving a visit from Canadian ambassador Sarah Taylor at the prison colony in Mordovia, a region southeast of Moscow. CBC News has previously  attempted to interview Whelan and had passed on contact information through family members.

He told Stewart he is encouraged by the support the Canadian government is providing and for being outspoken about his detention. 

But he admits to being “extremely depressed” in December when his ordeal reached the five-year mark and said he felt the U.S. government “wasn’t doing everything they could” to secure his release. 

“I think it’s high time, my governments got me home,” he said.

According to Whelan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since reassured him that “they are working towards a release” and he’s “cautiously optimistic now.” 

A grey-haired man, wearing a blue sweater and glasses, stands on the right holding up a sign next to a man on the left with a black mask covering his head and face.
Whelan held up a sign decrying his espionage trial as a ‘sham’ during his June 2020 verdict hearing in Moscow. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

The Biden administration previously secured the release of U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, in a December 2022 prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. 

Griner was arrested on drug smuggling charges early that year after customs agents at Moscow’s international airport found vape cartridges containing medically-prescribed hash oil in her baggage. 

Although Griner’s release raised hopes for a possible swap involving Whelan, he says the Russians have been “changing the goalposts since day one.” 

“Every time they ask for something, if our side says, ‘OK, we’ll do that,’ they change the goalposts and they come up with something else they want.” 

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Rosemary Barton Live speaks with Paul Whelan’s sister Elizabeth Whelan, who at this week’s UN Security Council meeting called on Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin to free her brother.

Life in a labour camp

Whelan offered a view of the conditions inside the prison camp where he’s detained and forced to work, making winter garments for Russian utility workers, six days a week. 

“It’s basically a labour camp,” he said. “It’s not a rehabilitation or correction facility.”

An exterior view of a prison colony with snow covering the trees and ground in front of it.
Whelan was transferred to Penal Colony IK-17, in Ozerny settlement in the Russian region of Mordovia, in December 2022 to serve a 16-year sentence on espionage charges. (Stringer/Reuters)

“The Russians always say that the poor conditions are part of the punishment, so you can just imagine what it’s like,” he said, describing the communal facility and military-like barracks where he sleeps in a room with 25 prisoners, and the lack of heat and hot water — even in winter. 

Even though he gets along well with other inmates around him, one prisoner attacked him in November. 

A Turkish man who had recently arrived at the prison hit Whelan in the face because he was angry about the U.S. role in the Israel-Hamas war and the plight of the Palestinians. The man was later convicted of assault.

“But it’s not a controlled environment at all,” he said. “It really is run by the prisoners.”

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Russian opposition leader and vocal Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny died in prison, according to Russian officials. About That producer Lauren Bird examines the moments that made him a famous anti-corruption activist and political adversary of Vladimir Putin.

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