MOSCOW - A Russian court has extended by more than two months the detention of a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage.
In a closed hearing in Moscow’s Lefortovo Court Friday, the presiding judge prolonged Paul Whelan’s detention until October 29th — the latest phase in an eight-month investigation by the country’s Federal Security Services, or FSB, that appears to be grinding toward presentation of formal charges by year's end.
“I am innocent of any charges resulting from this political kidnapping, No crime ever occurred,” said Whelan, 49, in a statement hurriedly read as police forced journalists from the courtroom following the judge’s ruling.
“The latest that we’ve seen from the investigation plays into the hands of the defense,” Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said after the ruling. “Paul’s version that this crime was merely a provocation is justified in our view. Investigators think otherwise."
If convicted, Whelan faces the possibility of 10- to 20 years in prison.
Entering the courthouse in handcuffs and led by masked police, the former Marine complained of rough treatment by authorities despite health issues.
“They are dragging me along even though I have a medical condition which prohibits it,” said Whelan.
In the initial open phase of the hearing, Whelan said he was in “great pain” and had repeatedly told the prosecutor about abuse and injuries at the hands of FSB and prison officials. Whelan said that despite his complaints, no action was taken.
“The prosecutor is allowing unlawful acts that violate human rights, acts that violate Russian law by the FSB," Whelan said. "The prosecutor’s office knows about this and has done nothing. Therefore she needs to go.”
The judge rejected Whelan’s request but paused proceedings so that a doctor could conduct a brief medical examination.
Whelan’s lawyers later clarified that the former Marine was considering possible surgery in a Moscow hospital for a hernia in his groin.
The U.S. Embassy in Russia said it has asked the Russian Foreign minister "for immediate consular access" to meet with Whelan and "to speak with him about his serious health allegations."
We’ve asked @MFA_Russia for immediate consular access to meet with #PaulWhelan to speak with him about his serious health allegations. The health and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad is our highest priority. https://t.co/ltmUCVKQ9g— Rebecca Ross (@USEmbRuPress) August 23, 2019
Whelan’s complaints also extended to the court proceedings themselves.
“There’s no judicial process here, no due process,” said Whelan, noting prison officials had informed him of the court hearing just two hours prior.
“I was not given notice for this hearing. I have not seen my attorneys for more than a month for consultation. I did not have an opportunity to talk to them or look at their documents,” he added.
He also questioned the abilities of his court-appointed Russian translator and sharply criticized the closed-door nature of the hearings — a standard practice for espionage cases, say Russian officials.
“This is part of the cover up,” said Whelan, as the judge ordered journalists out of the room.
Whelan, who in addition to American citizenship, holds passports from Canada, Ireland, and Britain, was arrested by FSB agents in December of last year in a downtown Moscow hotel, after allegedly accepting classified materials on a computer ‘thumb’ flash drive.
Whelan has repeatedly denied the charges, insisting he was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding and had accepted the drive from a Russian acquaintance without knowing or ever viewing its contents.
The case has proven an additional irritant to already strained relations between the United States and Russia over larger issues such as Syria, Ukraine, and Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Whelan has called on U.S. President Donald Trump to intervene on his behalf, asking the American leader “to tweet your intentions” about a case that Whelan has labeled “the Moscow goat rodeo.”
While U.S. officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, have criticized Russia for providing scant evidence of Whelan’s wrongdoing, they have also stopped short of proclaiming his innocence, according to Whelan's family members.
Whelan had a message Friday for those following his case.
“Only listen to what I say. Do not trust anyone else.”