Russia convicts American of spying, outrages US

Updated June 16, 2020

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In this August 23, 2019 photo, Paul Whelan, a former US marine who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow on December 28, 2018, stands in a cage as he waits for a hearing in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia. — AP
In this August 23, 2019 photo, Paul Whelan, a former US marine who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow on December 28, 2018, stands in a cage as he waits for a hearing in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia. — AP

WASHINGTON: The United States expressed outrage on Monday over a Russian court’s conviction of American Paul Whelan on espionage charges, saying he was deprived of a fair trial.

Whelan, a former Marine arrested in December 2018, was sentenced on Monday to 16 years of hard labor after being found guilty of receiving classified information.

“The United States is outraged by the decision of a Russian court today to convict US citizen Paul Whelan after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “We demand Paul Whelan’s immediate release,” he said.

Just days earlier, Pompeo had publicly called on Russia to release Whelan, who contends that he was on holiday in Russia when he was given a USB drive thinking it contained family photographs.

“The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo said Russian authorities “put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition.” Whelan’s conviction is another impediment in relations between the two powers, which are at odds over Ukraine, Syria, Libya, arms control and a host of other issues.

President Donald Trump nonetheless recently said he hoped to invite his counterpart Vladimir Putin to the United States, welcoming him back into the elite club of the Group of Seven major industrial democracies, thereby ending Russia’s suspension over its annexation of Crimea after seizing it from Ukraine.

Moscow City Court found Whelan guilty of receiving classified information as he stood in the dock with a sign that read “Sham trial!” and pleaded for US President Donald Trump to intervene in the case.

The court process is “slimy, greasy Russian politics nothing more, nothing less,” he said.

Whelan, 50, has been held in a Moscow jail since his arrest in December 2018 and his trial was held behind closed doors because of the accusations of seeking to obtain state secrets.

Throughout the trial he maintained his innocence, saying he was framed and comparing himself to the hapless comedy character Mr Bean.

“Russia thought they caught James Bond on a spy mission, in reality they abducted Mr Bean on holiday,” he said.

Whelan says he was detained on a visit to Moscow to attend a wedding when he took a USB drive from an acquaintance thinking it contained holiday photographs.

The prosecution had asked the judge to sentence Whelan to 18 years in a strict-regime penal colony, just short of the 20 years maximum term for the charge.

The US ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan condemned the trial as unfair and lacking transparency.

“I am disappointed, outraged by what I just heard,” he told reporters in court.

“(Whelan has) been sentenced to 16 years in prison with no evidence that’s been produced.

“I can’t say I’m surprised. This is the direction this case has been heading from the beginning,” he added.

The prosecutor summed up last month by saying Whelan tried to receive information that was a state secret and could harm Russia’s security, Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov told reporters.

The prosecutor claimed that Whelan has the rank of an officer — “at least a colonel” — at the US defence intelligence agency, the lawyer said.

Whelan’s family had said ahead of the verdict that a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion.

After Monday’s ruling, his brother David said in a statement that he family would continue to fight for his release, and criticised the court’s politically motivated verdict.

“We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities,” he said.

Whelan was dishonourably discharged as a marine before working as head of global security at a US auto parts company.

There had been suggestions that Whelan — who also has British, Canadian and Irish passports — could be returned to the US in a prisoner swap.

Whelan’s lawyer said on Monday that Russian intelligence services were considering an exchange with two Russians detained in the United States, including pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, imprisoned on drug smuggling charges.

David Whelan, the brother, said recently that the family hoped a conviction would allow Russia and the United States to “begin discussing Paul’s release immediately”.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2020