Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen who is also a citizen in the U.K., Ireland, and Canada, has been found guilty in Russia in a closed trial and sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage. He had been arrested in Moscow in 2018 by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).
The verdict was read in a Moscow court on Monday as Whelan stood in the defendant’s cage holding a sign that read “Sham trial,” among other things.
The case against Whelan, a 50-year-old former U.S. Marine, has proven to be a contentious issue between Washington and Moscow, as secrecy has surrounded the case ever since Whelan’s initial arrest.
Shortly after his arrest, Russia’s FSB released in a statement that he had been detained while on a “spy mission.” They later produced evidence with a flash drive containing classified information that was seized from his hotel room.
Whelan denied all charges of espionage, maintaining that he was set up and that he was given a flash drive by a friend. He said that he thought the drive contained family vacation photos. In his closed trial, he entered a plea of not guilty.
The Russian government prosecution said that Whelan held the rank of “at least colonel” with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. However, he was kicked out of the Marine Corps Reserves with a bad-conduct discharge with a rank of E-4.
Whelan enlisted in the Marine Reserves in 1994. He held the rank of staff sergeant with Marine Air Control Group 38 working as an administrative clerk and administrative chief. He was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
After a court-martial conviction in January 2008 on multiple counts “related to larceny,” he was sentenced to 60 days restriction, reduction to pay grade E-4, and received a bad-conduct discharge. The specific charges against him included attempting to steal more than $10,000 in 2006 in Iraq and using a false Social Security Number to create a fake account on a government computer system to grade his own examinations.
After his arrest, an American automotive parts supplier, BorgWarner, confirmed that Whelan is their Director of Global Security.
“He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and at other company locations around the world,” the company said in a statement to National Public Radio (NPR).
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan condemned the guilty verdict. “We’ve watched while Paul has denied due process, while he’s been denied access to the outside world, to his family and friends, while he’s been denied outside medical care as his health continues to deteriorate, and at every opportunity, we’ve spoken out,” Sullivan said. “So little has been done by Russian authorities to ensure Paul’s basic human rights.”
Sullivan added, “The Russian government has allowed no evidence — none. All court hearings are being held behind closed doors, in secrecy away from the media, from the public and from me. Away from anyone who might challenge their definition of ‘red-handed.’ There’s been talk of evidence, an allusion to evidence, and even allusions to the discussion of evidence.”
One of Whelan’s lawyers, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said that Whelan called the court proceedings “slimy, grubby, greasy Russian politics. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “It is unacceptable that Paul Whelan has been denied necessary medical treatment until his condition became dire [in reference to Whelan’s underlying health]. We demand Paul’s release!”
In a statement after the verdict, Whelan’s brother David said that he believes Monday’s conviction increases the chances that Paul will be released as part of a prisoner swap.
About a year ago, Whelan pleaded with President Trump to act on his behalf, but the White House, unlike the State Department, has been largely silent.