Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was arrested 18 months ago on spying charges in Russia, was on Monday found guilty in a Moscow court of receiving classified information, prompting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to call for his immediate release amid claims of a “sham” trial.
- Whelan, a citizen of the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Ireland, was sentenced in Moscow City Court to 16 years in a maximum security prison, after being convicted of spying for the U.S..
- The 50-year-old, also a security executive in the U.S., says he is innocent and that he was set up by being handed a flash drive containing classified information of which he was unaware. He called the trial a “sham” in a written note held up to his cubicle in court on Monday.
- Pompeo tweeted shortly after the conviction that he was “outraged” at the decision “on the basis of a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses.”
- He added: “Paul’s treatment by Russian authorities continues to be appalling, and we demand his immediate release.”
- John Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, denounced the decision as a “mockery of justice” and, according to Reuters, said the ruling would not have a good impact on already-strained diplomatic ties.
- Whelan’s brother, David, said in a statement that lawyers will appeal the “political” decision. “We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities,” he said.
- Russia has denied allegations of the trial being political-motivated, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling journalists that Whelan’s guilt was proven during proceedings, the Associated Press reports.
Whelan, who joined the Marine reserves in 1994 and served two tours in Iraq, was arrested in his hotel room in December 2018 while he was in Russia to attend a friend’s wedding. He says an old friend unexpectedly handed him a USB drive that he thought contained holiday photographs. Soon after, security arrested him for receiving state secrets. The trial was held in secret and Whelan claims he was framed, while his family previously appealed to President Trump to bring him back to the U.S. Whelan has previously complained of mistreatment throughout the trial, and on Monday said he did not understand the court’s decision as he had no interpreter.
Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan’s Russian lawyer, has signalled a chance that his client could be exchanged with two Russian prisoners in the U.S.—arms trader Viktor Bout, and cocaine trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko. They are serving 25 years and 20 years, respectively.