Whelan faces more health challenges, espionage trial in Russia may be delayed

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

The trial for a Novi man being held in Russia on spying charges is expected to begin Monday as he continues to face health challenges, a relative said Thursday.

Paul Whelan's trial on espionage charges is scheduled before three judges of the Moscow city court, Whelan's brother, David Whelan, said in an email, but whether it will proceed is unknown amid a global coronavirus outbreak that's halted non-essential hearings in Russia. 

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, was detained at the end of December for alleged spying.

"We hope that it starts — and finishes — quickly," wrote David Whelan, adding the trial is expected to be closed to the public and the only participants will be his brother, lawyers, Russia's Federal Security Services, the prosecutor and judge.

David Whelan said the Russian Supreme Court has suspended hearing all but the most urgent cases due to growing worries over the coronavirus so "Paul's trial may not actually occur."

Whelan, 50, the former director of global security for Auburn Hills-based auto supplier BorgWarner, has been in a Moscow prison since Dec. 28, 2018, on spying charges. Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested him at his hotel after agents allegedly found a USB drive with classified information in his room.

Outside the courtroom, "Paul remains isolated" and "we continue to be concerned about Paul's health," David Whelan wrote. The global pendemic "only heightens" their worries, he added. 

The Russian Federation government has eliminated visits from relatives to those held in pre-trial detention centers like Lefortovo, Whelan wrote. A U.S. Embassy visit planned for Thursday and approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was canceled. 

"It may be some time before we learn what is happening to Paul," David Whelan said.

Whelan's brother said Paul, who recently suffered from a hernia, also has cracked a molar and had to undergo a temporary fix by a prison dentist. He's been unable to speak with a doctor about his need for surgery. 

The Canadian ambassador, Alison LeClaire, and her staff visited Paul on his 50th birthday, he said. Paul has been denied multiple written and oral requests to make a phone call to family, he contends. 

"Canadian consular staff conveyed our messages to him and delivered mail," David Whelan said. "His daily letters  — to us, members of the US, UK, Canadian, and Irish governments — are still sent but take months to arrive at their destination."

Last month, U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens called on the U.S. ambassador to Russia to increase efforts to obtain Paul Whelan's release. 

Stevens argued the former U.S. Marine has been deprived of a fair trial, phone calls with his family or medical attention and held without “adequate public information or evidence about the charges against him.”

Additionally, Whelan has alleged abuse by his guards at Lefortovo prison and is “suffering from a hernia,” Stevens said. 

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called Whelan's release in January noting the case had gone on for too long with no evidence shown by investigators. 

“Russian authorities show no credible justification for isolating Paul and refuse to allow Paul to get proper medical attention,” Sullivan said. “This is shameful treatment.”

A resolution in the House calling for Whelan's release received a unanimous support, as did a Senate resolution introduced by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

Whelan’s family has said Paul was in Russia for a friend’s wedding when he was arrested and charged. His lawyers contend he was framed and had no knowledge of the classified data on the flash drive he was handed as part of an alleged setup.