MOSCOW—On Monday a panel of three Russian judges sentenced former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan to 16 years of “strict regime” in a labor camp. The charge against him: espionage.
Whelan stood in the courtroom’s cage listening to the verdict pronounced in Russian, pressing a piece of paper to the glass wall: “Sham trial!” it said, and “Meatball surgery!,” referring to the hernia operation he had in prison, and “No human rights!,” as well as other slogans.
Prior to the sentencing, Whelan reportedly shouted that his case is a “political charade” by a Russian government that “feels impotent in the world, so it’s taking political hostages.”
Later Whelan complained to reporters in the courtroom that nobody bothered to translate what had just happened.
Whelan says his prison guards and investigators humiliated him from the first day he was arrested in his hotel 18 months ago to the day. He was kept in a small cell at Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison without a chance to speak with his family. He suffered from agonizing pain for months because of the hernia, without a chance to consult with his doctors.
Whelan’s state appointed lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, is convinced that now it is up to the former spy Vladimir Putin to decide what to do with Whelan.
“It must have been hard for the judge to hand down that sentence: the prosecutors presented only one witness, who most probably works for the Russian special services and claims that Paul had intended to recruit him, while we presented 12 Russian witnesses, including retired military who confirmed that Whelan had never tried to recruit them, that he loved Russia,” Zherebenkov told The Daily Beast. “I told Paul that there is no justice in Russia. He knows his case is a political provocation. He’s been prepared. We have not seen any Americans convicted of espionage in our labor camps for at least 15 years—he was taken to be swapped, it became clear already in December.”
There is a common saying in Russia: “The intelligence services do not give up on their own.” There are at least two prisoners in United States that the Kremlin has been eager to bring back home for years, both of whom are suspected Russian intelligence operatives, most likely for the foreign intel service known as the SVR.
One is Victor Bout, a former Soviet military officer whose arms trafficking earned him the sobriquet “Merchant of Death.” He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 25 years for agreeing to sell weapons to undercover agents posing as Colombian terrorists who intended to kill Americans. The other is Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, also convicted in 2011, who was sentenced to 20 years for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine.
“A few weeks ago Mikhail Alekseyev, a spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Service, SVR, mentioned that Paul should be swapped for Bout and Yaroshenko, which means that the SVR now admit both men are theirs,” Zherebenkov told The Daily Beast. “The decision to swap Whelan for Bout and Yaroshenko must have been considered at the very top; now the two [American and Russian] presidential administrations and intelligence services will discuss the details.”
The Kremlin’s major newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, reported on Monday that investigators discovered a memory stick in Whelan’s hotel room with “a list of employees of one of the Russian special services.” The state newspaper says that once Whelan’s verdict goes into effect, “The Washington side might raise a question about a possible exchange of Whelan and some Russian citizens convicted in the United States.”
When Whelan was arrested in December 2018 there was widespread speculation he might be traded for Maria Butina, who used gun rights advocacy and a glamorous makeover to work her way into the confidence of GOP lawmakers. But she served only five months of an 18-month sentence for failure to register as a foreign agent, and was deported back to Moscow last year with, it appears, with no deal to let Whelan go.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan told a crowd of reporters that he felt “disappointed and outraged” after hearing the verdict and seeing Whelan in the courtroom. The ambassador, a lawyer, called the court process “a mockery of justice.”
“An American citizen has been sentenced to a term of 16 years for a crime of which we have not seen evidence,” said Sullivan. “He was denied an opportunity to work cooperatively with his defense council who was appointed for him; in addition he was horribly mistreated.”
Ambassador Sullivan said that Whelan had been denied medical help until surgery was needed to repair a hernia. That also was conducted on Russia’s terms. “He wasn’t able to speak with his family, with his elderly parents for almost a year and a half. To say that I am troubled by this is an understatement.”
In vain Whelan’s family tried to get in touch with him during three months of COVID-19 lockdowns. In late May the family found out about the hernia operation. “We do not know how his health is, no one has spoken with Paul since his emergency surgery, and that was a brief call to the embassy,” Whelan’s twin brother David told The Daily Beast on Monday. “Our family has not spoken with Paul, except for the single phone call that the Lefortovo prison allowed him in May.”
Ambassador Sullivan called for all fair-minded people in Russia and around the world to demand Whelan’s release, “because if they can do this to Paul, they can do this to anyone.”
Since Whelan also holds Canadian, U.K., and Irish passports, four embassies are now working on appealing his sentence. “Out of all the criticism against the United States over the years, one thing I have not heard Russia criticize was our federal criminal of justice system, our commitment to due process, the fundamental rights, the fundamental human rights around the world of a public trial, an opportunity to present all the evidence on all charges—he was denied that from the beginning,” Sullivan said.
Whelan’s defense now waits for the deal proposal from the state, Zherebenkov told The Daily Beast. “Prosecutors ask us not to appeal the verdict now—we’ll wait until next week and see what they have to offer us.”
The family also hoped for a prompt release. “Paul’s attorneys Vladimir Zherebenkov and Olga Karlova are better situated to answer questions about whether to appeal or go straight to a petition for clemency. Paul will be involved in that choice too. I am in favor of whatever arrangement gets Paul released most promptly,” said his brother, David Whelan.