Elizabeth Whelan – the sister of Paul Whelan, an American who has been detained in Russia for more than four years – attended the UN Security Council meeting that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chaired on Monday.
“I am here to tell Russia: free Paul Whelan,” Elizabeth Whelan said in remarks prior to the meeting.
Lavrov arrived to address the international body as Russia continues its brutal invasion of Ukraine, and less than a month after Russia detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. The US State Department has designated both Gershkovich and Whelan as wrongfully detained.
Russia, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month, scheduled the meeting to highlight the principles of the UN charter. Each month the Security Council’s presidency rotates among the 15 members.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield has described Russia’s Security Council presidency this month as “an April Fool’s joke.” She said the US would move to push back on Russia seeking to use its presidency to spread disinformation.
In her remarks at the meeting, Thomas-Greenfield specifically referenced Elizabeth Whelan’s presence in the room.
“I want Minister Lavrov to look into her eyes and see her suffering. I want you to see what it’s like to miss your brother for four years. To know he is locked up, in a Russian penal colony, simply because you want to use him for your own means,” she said.
Lavrov, Whelan said, had looked at her when the US ambassador acknowledged her at the Monday meeting.
“He and his group looked over towards me,” Whelan told CNN. “I expected him to shuffle papers.”
Thomas-Greenfield, in an interview later Monday night with CNN’s Erin Burnett, said she was “pleased” Whelan saw Lavrov look at her “so that he could feel her pain and he can feel her suffering, not having seen her brother for nearly four years.”
She added that “we’re doing everything possible, Erin, to get all American citizens — to get Evan, to get Paul — released from the terror that they are experiencing being in these penal colony colonies.”
Speaking ahead of Monday’s meeting, Whelan had said that her brother “has not committed a crime, but a crime has been committed against him.”
She was joined by Thomas-Greenfield, as well as the Irish and Canadian ambassadors to the UN. Paul Whelan has US, Irish, Canadian and British citizenship.
“Paul was a corporate security director. He had a job he loved, a home, a life of hope and opportunity. All that has been taken away from him by Russia, a country that revels in its culture of lies, its tradition of hostage diplomacy,” Whelan said.
“I am here today to tell the global community that one way to engage in effective multilateralism is to confront those countries that resort to hostage diplomacy,” she added.
Thomas-Greenfield said in her remarks prior to the meeting that it was “impossible to ignore the giant elephant in the room: Russia.”
“Russia, the convener of today’s meeting, invaded its neighbors in Ukraine and struck at the heart of the UN Charter. And Russia, time and time again, has violated universal human rights and fundamental freedoms both outside and inside its own borders – that includes arbitrarily detaining political activists, journalists and opposition leaders as well as the wrongful detention of American citizens,” she said.
“There’s a human cost to Russia’s violation of international norms, to its barbaric practice of using people as political pawns. That cost is borne by those detained but also by their family and friends as Paul’s sister here with me today can attest to,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Elizabeth Whelan told CNN’s Pamela Brown on “The Lead with Jake Tapper” Monday that “it was quite a moment” to be in the room with the people who are imprisoning her brother.
“I was there for Paul, and for Evan, and for Brittney (Griner), and for Trevor Reed, even those people who have been freed already, because this regime has gone too far,” she said. “This hostage diplomacy has to end.”
The US government was unable to secure Whelan’s release last year when it brought home two other Americans who had been wrongfully detained in Russia – Reed in April and Griner in December. And earlier this month, Thomas-Greenfield spoke with her Russian counterpart at the UN to express the US demand that Gershkovich be released immediately.
Whelan has urged the Biden administration to do more to free her brother.
“Paul Whelan deserves better than he is getting for results. He has the White House attention to his case and now he needs the White House to get the job done,” she said in a video posted to Facebook earlier this month.
Whelan also said that her family has “repeatedly seen the US government talk about lines beyond which they will not go to bring Paul Whelan back to Michigan.” But she said that such lines had been “erased” to bring Reed and Griner home.
As tensions continue to rise between Russia and the US, Lavrov and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have no plans to meet on the sidelines of Monday’s meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Sunday, according to RIA, a Russian state-owned domestic news agency.
“There are no such plans. By and large, we do not have an agenda with the Americans for discussion at the ministerial level at the moment,” the deputy minister told reporters, according to RIA’s reporting.
This story has been updated with additional developments.