Former US marine convicted of espionage is sentenced to 16 years in prison by Russian court

Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of spying in Russia, appears in the dock at a court in Moscow (AP)

Former US marine Paul Whelan was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison, a Moscow court ruled Monday, concluding a months-long case that put additional strain to already complicated US-Russian relations.

From behind a glass screen ahead of the verdict, Whelan held up a sign in court with phrases on it including "Sham trial," "No human rights," and "Paul's life matters."

Whelan then personally called on the US president Donald Trump as well as leaders of Ireland, the UK and Canada to "end this political charade."

"This is slimy, greasy, grubby Russian politics. Nothing more. Nothing less," Whelan said.

Whelan -- who is also an Irish, British and Canadian citizen -- was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He has been in Lefortovo prison in Moscow since and the trial was held behind closed doors.

His lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, previously said Whelan was unwittingly handed a flash drive containing "state secrets" while on a personal trip to Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said Whelan was caught "red-handed."

Whelan denies the spying charges and says he has been denied proper medical treatment while in detention. His family maintains he traveled to Moscow to attend a wedding and was arrested on false charges.

Zherebenkov told CNN Monday that Whelan thought he was followed by Russian special services for years, since he first started coming to Russia. According to Zherebenkov, Whelan had many Russian friends, "mostly among military," and one of his contacts was operating "under the control of special services" and handed him the drive.

Zherebenkov also stoked speculation that Whelan's sentencing will be used as a leverage by the Kremlin to arrange a prisoner swap for two Russians in US custody, Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko.

The lawyer added that the defense plans to appeal the decision. "There were serious hopes for positive outcome but in this case political rationale, negativity towards the US and the games the special services play have led to a sad result," Zherebenkov said.

Russia's Foreign Ministry last year raised the possibility that Yaroshenko, convicted of drug smuggling in 2011 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, could be returned "in exchange for any American national" held in Russia. Yaroshenko is serving his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death" who was sentenced to 25 years in US federal prison in 2012, has also been mentioned.

The Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Monday in a conference call with reporters that Whelan cannot be considered a political prisoner and has been "convicted on charges that were proven in court and accepted by the court."

The US ambassador to Russia John Sullivan condemned the sentencing as "a mockery of justice" in a statement to media after the verdict.

"If they can do this to Paul, they can do this to anyone. A secret trial with the inability to defend oneself... it's a mockery of justice in addition to the fact that he's been horribly mistreated," he said.

"For all the criticism Russia levied against the United States over the years, including most recently, one thing I haven't heard criticized is our criminal justice system, the commitment to due process and fundamental rights ... to a conviction after a public trial, and Paul has been denied that from the beginning," Sullivan said, referring to a flurry of critical comments voiced by the Russian officials following the unrest in the US after George Floyd's death.

The verdict will harm the US-Russia relations, the ambassador added, saying that this case "complicates our process on other matters as well."

Sullivan said that he had not seen any evidence and Whelan was unable to choose his defense counsel or present witnesses in his defense.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded Whelan's immediate release Monday, saying that the US "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 defense witnesses."

"We have serious concerns that Mr. Whelan was deprived of the fair trial guarantees that Russia is required to provide him in accordance with its international human rights obligations," Pompeo said in the statement.

"The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling," Pompeo said. "Russia failed to provide Mr. Whelan with a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal; and during his detention has put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition; and unconscionably kept him isolated from family and friends."

Whelan's brother David said in an emailed statement Monday that his brother had been sentenced to 16 years hard labor but "it was the Russian legal system that was found guilty of injustice."

"The court's decision merely completes the final piece of this broken judicial process. We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities. We understand that Paul's lawyers may appeal this decision within the next two weeks. We hope that, in their continued search for justice for Paul, that the appeal is successful. But Russians do not expect justice from their legal system, and neither do we," he said.

"Our family will continue to fight for Paul's release."

He said the Russia's Foreign Ministry had made it "clear" that it expected to extract concessions but that Whelan would only be included in those discussions after a conviction. "That time is here," said David.

"We look to the US government to immediately take steps to bring Paul home. We will continue to work with members of Congress and the State Department to advocate for Paul's freedom and protect his human rights until he is free," he said, adding that they "will look to President Trump, who alone can act to bring Paul home."

Whelan's family has previously expressed concern for his wellbeing in prison and he underwent emergency hernia surgery at a Russian hospital late last month after experiencing "severe abdominal pain," according to David, who mentioned that his brother could be more susceptible to other illnesses or infections as coronavirus spread in the prison.

Sullivan said in April that he was twice denied access to see Whelan in court and that Russian authorities had denied both "repeated requests for an outside English speaking doctor to examine him" and attempts by the US Embassy to deliver masks, gloves and sanitizer.

Instead of personal protective equipment, inmates at Lefortovo Prison were given onions to ward off coronavirus, Whelan’s sister Elizabeth told CNN at the time.