NOVI, Mich. (WXYZ) — Friday marks one week since the United States Postal Service temporarily cut off mail to Russia, which for years has been a major connection between Paul Whelan and his family in the U.S.
The 52-year-old man from Novi, accused by the Russian government of espionage, has been in the custody of Russian authorities for over three years. Ever since his arrest, his family in the U.S. has been desperate to bring him home.
The current tension between the U.S. and Russia over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to more uncertainty for Whelan's family. According to his brother David, their parents have still been able to speak to Whelan over the phone, which is their only way to communicate at the moment.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, deliveries into the country have been halted. This month, both FedEx and UPS stopped service into Russia, and USPS temporarily suspended mail into the country, citing widespread cancellations and restrictions.
“There's no way for us and our family and Paul's supporters to send him mail, which is a critical piece of keeping his morale up,” said David Whelan.
David Whelan and his family were devastated to get the news this week. While Paul has been in a Russian labor camp, mail has been key for communication.
"It's been huge," David Whelan said. "He’s written over a thousand letters to our parents. He’s been in the labor colony for three and a quarter years now, and it’s been a lifeline.”
While the parents talk to Paul Whelan on the phone, David Whelan says he hasn’t heard his brother's voice in over three years. His brother is largely isolated from the outside world, knowing little about Russia's war with Ukraine.
"It’s literally only the information my parents share with him," David said. "Everybody in the prison is seeing what the Russian government is allowing them to see. So, it’s not a war to them, it’s not an invasion to them. All the lies that the Russian government is telling their citizens, that’s what the prisoners are seeing.”
As the U.S. continues diplomatic talks with Russia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said bringing home detainees is also top of mind, mentioning Paul Whelan by name when he was asked about another American detained in Russia, basketball star Brittney Griner.
"Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia," Blinken said during a press briefing earlier this month. "We've been seeking the release of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed for some time, both of whom are unjustly detained. We have an embassy team that's working on the cases of other Americans who are detained in Russia. We're doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected."
As Russia’s ongoing attack remains top priority, the Whelan family is hoping Paul can return home soon, urging the U.S. government to keep heavy sanctions in place until he’s free.
“It seems an opportune time to require the Russian government to release the American prisoners it has — Paul Whelan, Trevor Reed, Brittney Griner — before they lift any of those sanctions,” David Whelan said. “When you have them down, when you’ve kicked their economy so hard, why would you let them up again when they’re still holding Americans hostage?”