Eighteen months after he was arrested in a Moscow hotel room and accusing of spying, a Russian court has handed down a 16 year jail term to Paul Whelan, a national of four western countries: Canada, Ireland, the US and the UK.
The 50-year-old defendant described the trial, partly held behind closed doors, as a «sham» and protested his innocence throughout the process. After Monday morning’s verdict, he immediately stated that he intends to appeal. There have been suggestions that Whelan could be returned to the US in a prisoner swap.
His lawyer has named Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko – two Russians jailed in the US – as potential candidates. Bout, who Russia considers a ‘political prisoner,’ is serving a 25-year term for arms dealing. Meanwhile, Yaroshenko was arrested in Liberia in 2010 in what the Russian Foreign Ministry described as a «kidnapping» and brought to the US. He had never set foot in the country before. Russian authorities have repeatedly complained about the harsh conditions and lack of medical care he has received in US prison.
In December 2018, former US marine Whelan was detained in the Russian capital’s five-star Metropol Hotel after he accepted a USB device from an undercover FSB officer. Prosecutors alleged the flash drive included information related to active-duty members of Russia’s secret service. Whelan’s defense said he was the victim of a sting.
His legal team insisted Whelan believed he was receiving a flash drive containing photos of a joint event he set up with a Russian man he believed to be a friend, rather than highly classified information.
Whelan has been a frequent visitor to Russia since the mid-2000s, and he reportedly appeared on the security service’s radar as a possible intelligence threat several years before his arrest.
From the start, his family has rubbished claims he’s involved in espionage, describing him as a travel enthusiast who visited Moscow for a wedding. Whelan maintained an account on Russian Facebook-clone VKontakte where in January 2019, according to ABC News, his 55 «friends» were almost exclusively young men, most of whom seemed to have some sort of connection to the armed forces posted on their page. Only three were women.
Following the illegal American and British-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Whelan served in the US Marine Corps Reserve for five years, holding the rank of staff sergeant. In January 2008, he was court-martialled for «larceny» and later given a «bad conduct» discharge. Until 2016, he was senior manager of global security and operations at Kelly Services, an American office staffing company. Whelan has also worked as a police officer in the US. Born in Canada, he was living in Michigan before his arrest in Russia.
The US Ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan, spoke outside the court building. «The United States demands that US citizen Paul Whelan be released immediately,» he said. «His conviction is a mockery of justice, the world is watching.»
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov indicated on Monday that Moscow might be open to a prisoner swap deal. «We have repeatedly proposed options where it would be possible for those US citizens who are serving sentences in Russia to be exchanged for Russian citizens who are serving sentences on far-fetched and unlawful charges (in the US),» he told Ria Novosti. «I have no reason to speculate on what may happen next, these ideas have been offered to the Americans many times.»
Sullivan said that the US was not looking for an exchange, but rather «justice» for Whelan.
A notable feature of the saga has been restrained reporting from the US press, which typically would give a case of this nature massive coverage. For example, at lunchtime on Monday, the New York Times buried the story in its «other news» section under the neutral headline «Russian Court Sentences Paul Whelan, an American, to 16 Years on Spy Charges.» This has raised eyebrows in Moscow media circles.