A Russian court has convicted a former US marine of espionage charges and sentenced him to 16 years in a high-security prison.
The harsh sentence handed down by a court in Moscow to Paul Whelan is likely to raise tensions between Russia and the US. It followed a secret trial that was criticised by the country’s ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, as a “mockery of justice”.
In a statement on Monday the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said: “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 defence witnesses.”
Whelan was arrested in a hotel in Moscow in late 2018 while he was preparing to attend a wedding, and accused of obtaining “state secrets” on a flash drive. He has claimed that he was framed by an acquaintance that he met online and his family has said he was a victim of “entrapment”. He has complained of mistreatment while in custody.
Whelan, 50, also holds British, Canadian and Irish citizenships. His brother David said that his family has looked for help to the US government and Donald Trump, describing the US president as the person “who alone can act to bring Paul home”.
“The court’s decision merely completes the final piece of this broken judicial process,” Whelan wrote in an email. “We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities.”
“Our family will continue to fight for Paul’s release,” he wrote. “The Russian government has been clear, through statements from the ministry of foreign affairs, that it expected to extract concessions but that Paul’s inclusion in those discussion would only happen after a conviction. That time is here.”
The sentencing is seen as the likely precursor to a prisoner swap, as occurred in an unusual three-way swap including Norway and Lithuania in November. Russia last year said it had told the US who it would be willing to swap Whelan for pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian citizen arrested in Liberia and then turned over to the United States, where he was sentenced to 20 years on drug charges. Russia then said that it was to early to discuss Whelan because he had not yet been convicted or sentenced.
Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, has previously told the Guardian that he expected the Kremlin to seek a trade for his client after his conviction. “If Trump releases one of ours then I’m sure that ours will release someone too,” he said in November. “It’s high politics. I want to say that our president is absolutely sane about this. Putin sees this all rather calmly. Why not [make a trade]?”