A Moscow court convicted former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan on charges of espionage on Monday, sentencing him to 16 years of hard labor in a ruling all but certain to further roil the current low ebb in US-Russian relations.
Speaking from a courtroom cage before the decision, Whelan denounced the trial as a politically-motivated “sham trial” and “goat rodeo.”
“This is slimy, greasy, grubby Russian politics. Nothing more. Nothing less,” shouted Whelan to journalists from across the courtroom. “There has been no espionage. There is no evidence.”
Even after the judge read out the sentence in Russian, Whelan was left asking for a translation of what had just transpired but insisted he would appeal the ruling.
The Whelan Affair
Whelan, 50, was arrested by FSB security agents in late December 2018 after allegedly accepting classified materials on a computer thumb drive in a central Moscow hotel.
Whelan has always denied those charges, insisting he was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding and had accepted the drive from a Russian acquaintance without ever knowing or viewing its contents.
The former Marine, who in addition to U.S. citizenship holds passports from Britain, Canada, and Ireland, has also said he has been mistreated and denied medical treatment throughout his detention.
Whelan on Monday said Russian authorities waited until the last minute to grant him an emergency hernia operation in late May — a middle of the night trip to the hospital that Whelan labeled “meatball surgery” in an apparent knock at the quality of his medical care.
Whelan also said Russian security agents checking him into the medical facility under the assumed named “Mikhail Burbonov.”
“They were worried about U.S. special forces coming to rescue me,” said Whelan. “That’s how paranoid and delusional these people are. It’s ridiculous.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry had accused Whelan of feigning illness — part of what the ministry said was Whelan’s playbook training as a U.S. intelligence officer after being caught “red-handed” by Russia’s security services.
Mockery of justice
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan joined counterparts from Britain, Canada, and Ireland at the courtroom and afterwards denounced the ruling as “a mockery of justice.”
“I’m…outraged at what I’ve just heard,” said Sullivan, who noted Whelan was denied the opportunity to present witnesses and assigned his defense lawyers in a closed trial.
“An American citizen has just been sentenced to a term of 16 years for a crime for which we have not seen evidence,” added Sullivan. “If they can do this to Paul, they can do this to anyone."
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. is “outraged” by the court ruling 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 obligation,” Pompeo said in a statement.
The trial was conducted behind closed doors over national security concerns, with Sullivan and other consular officials repeatedly denied access to hearings in recent months.
That Russian prosecutors had asked the court for an even stiffer sentence of 18 years was a message relayed through Whelan’s Russian lawyers — both appointed by the state.
From the outset, the circumstances of the arrest and trial provoked speculation that Moscow was interested in a high profile spy swap with Washington — a theory Whelan and his lawyers both endorsed again Monday.
“Russia wants their drug smuggler and their gun runner back,” said Whelan after Monday’s ruling -- a reference to two Russians currently serving out long sentences in the United States.
Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout was convicted by a U.S. court in 2011 and is currently serving out a 25-year term in a medium security prison in Illinois.
Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko was found guilty of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. in 2011 and given a 20-year term.
“Nobody’s hiding it,” said Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov when asked about the prospects of a prisoner trade.
Zherebenkov also noted that Whelan may appeal for a pardon from President Vladimir Putin.
“He’s not against it,” said Zherebenkov.
Indeed, Whelan has always said that politics would ultimately play the larger role in determining his fate and he called on President Donald Trump to “tweet your intentions.”
Yet, when asked directly about the politics of the case, both sides demurred.
Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected claims Whelan was a political pawn.
“No, it’s impossible,” said Peskov. Whelan “was presented with charges that were proven in court and accepted by the judge,” said Peskov.
Ambassador Sullivan promised to double down on his efforts to gain Whelan’s freedom.
"We’re not looking for an exchange,” said Sullivan. “We’re looking for justice for Paul, and his release.”
(VOA's Nike Ching contributed to this story.)