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What will economic sanctions on Russia mean for prisoners like Paul Whelan?

Paul's family sends U.S. dollars to his labor camp
American convicted of spying in Russia, gets 16 years
Posted at 12:07 PM, Feb 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-14 14:58:17-04

(WXYZ) — As the U.S. and its allies throw more economic sanctions at Russia, the family of Paul Whelan is bracing for how it could impact their ability to support him.

The Novi man remains locked up in a Russian labor camp, serving a 16 year sentence for spying.

The charge is something Whelan had always denied, claiming when he was arrested in Russia four years ago, he was simply there to attend a friend's wedding.

Russia's Foreign Minister has said Whelan was caught "red-handed" with a flash drive of state secrets.

Now, Whelan works daily making textiles along with other inmates, including a few Americans, at a labor colony in Mordovia; it's about 750 miles from the Ukrainian border.

Paul's brother David Whelan tells Action News from what he can tell. Daily life at the prison hasn't changed since the news of the invasion.

But he does have concerns, he said, about his family's ability to keep supporting Paul financially should economic sanctions interrupt the way they send cash to Russia.

“I think it’s sort of an invisible problem in Paul’s particular case. None of our family has Russian bank accounts. Right now, when we received money from his Go Fund Me account. That goes into a trust fund, and that money is then transmitted to the State Department in Washington," David explained.

From there, it's transferred to a bank in Moscow held by the U.S. Embassy. The Embassy then takes that money and loads it onto a phonecard or into Paul's prison account; that's how he pays for fresh vegetables and necessities and also precious minutes on the phone with his aging parents back home.

Currently, David said the family is still able to send money to Paul in prison.

"If the sanctions inhibit his ability to transmit U.S. dollars to Russia, then that pipeline of support will be cut off," David said.

Over the weekend, the world continued to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. and its western allies have limited Russian banks' access to SWIFT, an international banking system.

The White House also announced Russia's Central Bank restrictions, limiting access to foreign reserves.

And in the private sector, big tech companies show their disapproval of Putin and this invasion.

Both YouTube and Meta, Facebook's parent company, announced limits to Russia's ability to make money from ads on their platforms and even limited certain content.

Sen. Gary Peters, who has been outspoken about bringing Paul home, released the following statement to Action News when asked about Paul's current status amid this escalating tension.

“Here in Michigan, folks know that to stand with Ukraine is to stand for Michiganders of Ukrainian descent and ordinary Americans like Paul Whelan – who has been unjustly imprisoned in a former Russian gulag. The unprovoked and illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine is an assault on democratic principles and the rights of free people everywhere – including our neighbors. I’ll continue working with the administration to press for Paul Whelan's return home to Michigan.”

Click here to learn more about Paul's story.