FILE - Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine, who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow at the end of 2018, stands in a cage while waiting for a hearing in a court room in Moscow, Russia, Aug. 23, 2019.
FILE - Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine, who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow at the end of 2018, stands in a cage while waiting for a hearing in a court room in Moscow, Russia, Aug. 23, 2019.

MOSCOW - The long-awaited trial of a former U.S. Marine facing charges of espionage got under way in Moscow on Monday — with U.S. officials accusing Russia of providing no evidence in a spy case that has proved an added irritant to already troubled relations between the two countries.  

Paul 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 repeatedly 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 the U.K., Canada and Ireland, also says he’s been mistreated and denied medical treatment while in detention — an assertion that U.S. officials have backed repeatedly and did so again Monday. 

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John J. Sullivan joined his counterparts from the U.K. and Ireland at the courtroom Monday, where the presiding judge allowed them to speak with Whelan briefly before closing the hearing to the public — a standard practice in Russian-led “top secret” espionage cases. 

“It’s a sad day for me as an American and a U.S. ambassador, in these circumstances, to come and see a citizen of my country held in such circumstances, with serious health problems unaddressed, with no evidence that’s been produced to justify his incarceration for well over a year, and his inability to communicate with his family despite repeated requests by him and by me to the Russian government,” said Sullivan, in a statement afterward to the press. 

“I am hoping that, as this process moves forward, we see a fair and transparent judicial process,” Sullivan added. “Every person, every citizen, of every country in the world, deserves that.” 

In turn, Russia’s foreign ministry has accused Whelan of feigning illness — part of what the ministry says is Whelan’s playbook training as a U.S. intelligence officer after being caught “red-handed” by Russia’s security services. 

If convicted on existing charges, Whelan faces the possibility of 10-20 years in prison.

U.S. ambassador to Russia John Sullivan speaks with journalists after his meeting with Paul Whelan, a U.S. national arrested and accused of espionage, outside a detention centre in Moscow, Russia January 30, 2020.

COVID-19, witnesses, and ‘a goat rodeo’ 

The Whelan trial proved one of the rare court proceedings currently in session in Russia, after the country’s high court postponed most judicial work last week out of fear of the spread of the coronavirus. 

Whelan’s Russian lawyers, Olga Karla and Vladimir Zherebenkov, said that — barring unforeseen delays because of the contagion — the closed trial would last about a month in which they promised to mount a vigorous defense. 

Speaking to reporters, Zherebenkov said he planned to call at least a dozen witnesses, all of them Russians with whom Whelan had been in contact during multiple visits to the Russian Federation in recent years. 

Whelan’s legal team also indicated they planned to call embassy officials to the stand, a move they assured would prove Whelan’s innocence of the spy charges. 

“We’ll interrogate the embassies to prove that Whelan physically could not be an agent as a citizen of four different countries,” said Zherebenkov, in comments carried by the Interfax News Agency. “It’s simply not possible,” he added. 

Yet, throughout the run-up to Monday’s hearing, Zherebenkov has repeatedly acknowledged that politics may play a larger role than material evidence in resolving the case. 

Last December, the lawyer publicly floated the idea of including Whelan in a wider prisoner swap between Russia and the West. 

“Paul is a citizen of four countries. None of them has asked to organize his exchange yet,” noted Zherebenkov before pleading: “Take the initiative gentlemen!” 

Meanwhile, 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 colorfully labeled “the Moscow goat rodeo.”