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American sentenced to 16 years in Russia on spying charges

Paul Whelan in a Moscow courtroom in 2019
American Paul Whelan has insisted on his innocence, saying he was set up.
(Associated Press)

A Russian court Monday sentenced an American businessman and former U.S. Marine to 16 years in prison on spying charges, a verdict that drew an angry response from U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who denounced the man’s treatment by Russian authorities as “appalling.”

The Moscow City Court read out the conviction of Paul Whelan on charges of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in a maximum-security prison colony. The trial was held behind closed doors because of what authorities said were sensitive data.

Whelan, who was arrested in Moscow in December 2018, has insisted on his innocence, saying he was set up.

Speaking after the verdict, U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan denounced the secret trial in which no evidence was produced as an egregious violation of human rights and international legal norms. He described Whelan’s conviction as a mockery of justice and demanded his immediate release.

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Pompeo said “the United States is outraged” by Whelan’s conviction “after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses.”

”We have serious concerns that Mr. Whelan was deprived of the fair trial guarantees that Russia is required to provide him in accordance with its international human rights obligations,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Russia downplayed the possibility of swapping a detained American held on espionage charges for a Russian national behind bars in the United States.

Whelan’s brother David said lawyers will appeal the verdict, which he denounced as political, adding in a statement that “the court’s decision merely completes the final piece of this broken judicial process.”

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“We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities,” the statement said. “We look to the U.S. government to immediately take steps to bring Paul home.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected allegations that Whelan had become a political hostage, saying during a conference call with reporters that his guilt was proved during the trial.

Whelan, a 50-year-old corporate security executive and Marine Corps veteran from Novi, Mich., was arrested outside a Moscow hotel. He was in Russia to attend a friend’s wedding at the time.

The greatest security breach in the history of the United States occurred during the 1940s and 1950s when American citizens forwarded top-secret information to Soviet agents.

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Whelan, who also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenship, denies charges of spying, which his lawyers said stemmed from a sting operation. Whelan’s lawyer has said his client was handed a flash drive that had classified information on it that he didn’t know about.

Whelan has publicly complained of poor prison conditions in Russia and has said his life is in danger. Last month, Whelan underwent surgery for a hernia.

“The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling,” Pompeo said. “Russia failed to provide Mr. Whelan with a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal; and during his detention has put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition; and unconscionably kept him isolated from family and friends.”

Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, pointed at official Russian statements that signaled the possibility of an exchange of Whelan for Russians Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who are in U.S. custody.

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The ruling means Alex Vavilov can reside permanently in the country where his parents once lived as embedded spies who inspired ‘The Americans.’

Bout, a Russian arms trader, is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. for a 2011 conviction on charges he conspired to sell millions of dollars of weapons to Colombian rebels. He insisted he was a legitimate businessman.

Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot, is serving a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. after he was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the U.S.

Russian officials have cast the convictions of Bout and Yaroshenko as politically driven and pushed for their release.

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“There have been proposals of exchange. The issue is being discussed,” Zherebenkov said.

Peskov declined to comment on whether Russia could be eyeing an exchange of Whelan for some of its citizens in U.S. custody.


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