On Monday, a Moscow court found former United States Marine Paul Wheelan guilty of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in prison with the possibility of time in a labor camp.
The verdict concludes a high-profile case that has further strained US-Russian relations over the past two years.
Wheelan, who also holds Irish, British and Canadian citizenship, was arrested by authorities at Moscow’s Metropol Hotel in 2018 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stating that Wheelan was caught “red-handed” after receiving a USB flash drive containing classified information.
However, Wheelan has denied the charges throughout the trial stating that he was framed by a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent who had handed him the drive. Wheelan explained that he accepted the drive thinking it contained family photos.
The trial, which began on March 23, was closed to the public and conducted in Russian with no English translation provided to Wheelan.
Ahead of the announcement, Wheelan held up a sign in the defendant’s box which contained written phrases such as, “Sham trial” and “No human rights.” After the announcement of the verdict, Wheelan told reporters, “This is slimy, greasy, rubbish Russian politics – nothing more, nothing less.”
On Monday, Wheelan’s defense attorney Vladimir Zherebenkov said that his team was in the midst of preparing documents to file an appeal. A final decision will be made on June 22 after a meeting with Wheelan.
Zherebenkov, not revealing his source, also added that Wheelan’s arrest would be used as leverage for a prisoner exchange of two Russians currently also held in US custody – Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko.
Former pilot Yaroshenko was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2010 for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the US. Bout, a Russian arms dealer, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012.
Zherebenkov stated, “Paul expected this decision because even when he was detained, he was told that he would be exchanged.”
“There were serious hopes for positive outcome but in this case political rationale, negativity towards the US and the games the special services play have led to a sad result,” Zherebenkov added.
The US ambassador to Russia John Sullivan denounced the Russian court’s verdict in a statement to the media. “If they can do this to Paul, they can do this to anyone. A secret trial with the inability to defend oneself … it’s a mockery of justice in addition to the fact that he’s been horribly mistreated.”
Addressing speculations of a prisoner exchange, Sullivan added, “Paul has now just become a convict in the Russian system. I’m advocating for justice for Paul … What we’re looking for is not an exchange, we’re looking for justice for Paul Whelan.”
Sullivan further stated that the verdict will harm US-Russia relations admitting that the decision “complicates our process on other matters as well.”
On June 15, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement calling for Wheelan’s immediate release.
“The United States is outraged by the decision of a Russian court today to convict U.S. citizen Paul Whelan 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 also condemned Wheelan’s treatment by the Russian authorities, labeling it as “appalling.”
Wheelan was not permitted to contact his family for 16 months after his detainment. According to his brother David Wheelan, Wheelan also suffered from preexisting inguinal hernia and reportedly had an emergency hernia operation at a Moscow hospital late last month.
“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,” Pompeo said in the statement.
“We demand Paul Whelan’s immediate release.”
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