Russia Sentences U.S. Citizen to 16 Years of Hard Labor for Espionage

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, is escorted inside a court building in Moscow, Russia October 24, 2019. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Paul Whelan, a former Marine and U.S. citizen, was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor by a Russian court on Monday.

Whelan, speaking from behind a glass screen as the verdict was read, held up a sign that said the whole case was a “sham trial.” “This is slimy, greasy, rubbish Russian politics — nothing more, nothing less,” Whelan yelled to reporters in the courtroom.

Russia’s Federal Security Service in Moscow detained Whelan in late December 2018 while he was visiting for a friend’s wedding. While Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov has argued Whelan was unknowingly given a flash drive containing “state secrets,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said Whelan was caught “red-handed.”

Speculation has grown that Russia plans to use Whelan as a bargaining chip for potential prisoner exchanges. Following the conviction, Zherebenkov revealed that “Paul expected this decision because even when he was detained, he was told that he would be exchanged.” U.S. officials have been outspoken about the case and Whelan’s treatment in captivity, during which he was only able to speak to his family after 16 months, and had to undergo an emergency operation without English-speaking doctors for an inguinal hernia.

“It is unacceptable that Paul Whelan has been denied necessary medical treatment until his condition became dire,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted on May 30. “We demand Paul’s release.”

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan told reporters after the verdict that he agreed with Whelan’s assessment of the case, calling it “a mockery of justice.”

“Is this an impediment? Absolutely,” Sullivan added on how the case had impacted the relationship between Moscow and Washington, describing the current situation as a “low ebb.”

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