MOSCOW — Russia is slowly waking up from a long winter break, and many people still are at the beach in faraway tropical climes. Among them is Vladimir Zherebenkov, an attorney appointed to defend the rights of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage and kept in one of Moscow’s worst jails, Lefortovo Prison. The attorney was more than nine thousand kilometers away from his client and grim Moscow winter, enjoying sunshine.
On Tuesday a woman’s voice answered Zherebenkov’s phone: “Please call back in a couple of hours, we are in the Dominican Republic,” she said. “Vladimir is on an excursion.”
When we finally made contact, Zherebenkov said that there was nothing for him to do about Whelan this week: “The prison is closed for the holidays, anyway; the investigators will begin introducing us to the case on January 14.”
Who will help this week, if, say, Whelan has problems with communication or feels ill or depressed in his single cell in the 19th century Russian prison?
“Oh, no-no, Paul is absolutely healthy, his heart is in good shape, he has been checked by the investigators,” said Zherebenkov. But he rejected the idea of an interview with the hale and hearty defendant.
“What makes me happy is that he does not lose his spirit, as many people do in his situation,” Zherebenkov said from his vacation in the DR. “He is not depressed, there is a great library in prison,” he added. “By now, Paul must have been moved to a cell with some English-speaking inmate, just as he asked. The prison has professional medical service, in case he feels sick.”
Many Russian lawyers think it is striking that the first American prisoner in years has been given a non-English-speaking attorney, somebody who had not defended foreign citizens in espionage cases.
Zherebenkov had a meeting with Whelan in Lefortovo last week. “The interpreter translated to him all my explanations about legal procedures, Russian laws, which are different from American,” Zherebenkov said. “Paul seemed to be well informed and well read, he listened attentively and stoically, like a real soldier. By the way, he does not hide the fact that he was a combat soldier in Iraq and not some headquarters rat.”
Experts from a group of public prison monitors confirmed to The Daily Beast on Wednesday that even if Whelan needed urgent help this week, he would not be able to get in touch with his lawyer.
“He has been accused, the U.S. ambassador has visited him in prison, so for now he will be just sitting in his cell without any opportunity to call anybody,” prison monitor Zoya Svetova explained.
Last week attorney Zherebenkov said in an interview with The Daily Beast that Whelan’s parents were heading to Moscow; this time he said it was not going to happen: “I don’t think there is any reason for the parents to come now, since there have not been any investigative procedures, any investigative actions done.”
Zherebenkov waved away the idea that the evidence the Federal Security Service (FSB) had against Whelan could have been false. “They are highly professional investigators. Of course to avoid a scandal they double-checked all their reasons before they accused him.”
Zherebenkov sounded irritated: “Americans arrest our innocent citizens all the time, by the way, every other week, and we Russians have a different mentality, we don’t do it,” he said. “If they grabbed the person, it means they have serious reason for that, they can prove his guilt.”
But then Zherebenkov said that at least for now the evidence he had seen did not convince him. “When Paul was accused in court we were presented with the FSB’s evidence; Whelan disagreed with the accusation, explained why he was innocent. At least for now, judging by what the investigation shows us, I am not convinced he is guilty. I don’t see his guilt.”
Since December 31, the day of Whelan’s arrest, many commentators in Russia and abroad have raised the possibility he will be exchanged for Maria Butina, a Russian prisoner in United States who cozied up to influential Republicans. She has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and is cooperating with the Mueller investigation into Russian efforts to influence the U.S. elections.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he knew nothing about an exchange: “I have not heard such statements, cannot say anything,“ Peskov said on Wednesday.
Speaking about possible scenarios for the investigation and court process, Zherebenkov seemed to be thinking out loud: “He could be swapped, theoretically, after he asked our president to pardon him.” For Maria Butina? “Why just Butina? We have many Russians in American prisons, there are people who feel much worse than Butina, in poor shape.”