Michigan’s Whelan sentenced to 16 years in Russia on spying charges

Associated Press

Moscow – A Russian court on Monday sentenced an American security executive to 16 years in prison on spying charges, a verdict that drew an angry response from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who denounced the man’s treatment by Russian authorities as “appalling.”

The Moscow City Court on Monday read out the conviction of Paul Whelan, who is from Novi, on charges of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in a maximum security prison colony.

Paul Whelan in a Russian prison.

Whelan has insisted on his innocence, saying he was set up. The U.S. Embassy has denounced Whelan’s trial as unfair, pointing that no evidence has been provided.

More:A cold war: Inside Paul Whelan's fight for freedom

Whelan’s brother David said lawyers will appeal the verdict that he denounced as political, adding in a statement that “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,” the statement said. “Our family will continue to fight for Paul's release.”

More:Frustrated family 'in dark' on Novi native being held in Russia

After the sentencing, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan tweeted: “This secret trial in which no evidence was produced is an egregious violation of human rights and international legal norms,."

Whelan, 50, was arrested in December 2018 while attending a wedding in Moscow after receiving a flash drive with “state secrets” that he says he thought contained holiday pictures. He was convicted in a closed trial.

His family said they believe that now that Whelan has been sentenced, Russia will try to use him as a bargaining chip to gain U.S. concessions. Pompeo called for his release last week, and reiterated that demand Monday.

In a statement Monday, the secretary of state highlighted several issues with Whelan's trial and with his treatment from Russian officials:

"The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling. 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 has publicly complained of poor prison conditions in Russia and has said his life is in danger. Last month, Whelan underwent surgery for a hernia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected allegations that Whelan has become a political hostage, saying during a conference call with reporters that his guilt was proven during the trial. Peskov refused to comment on whether Russia could be eyeing Whelan’s exchange for some of its citizens in the U.S. custody.

Whelan, who also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenship, denies the charges of spying for the U.S. 

Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, pointed at Russian official statements signaling a possibility that Whelan could be exchanged for Russians Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko.

“There have been proposals of exchange, the issue is being discussed,” he said.

Bout, a Russian arms trader, is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States for a 2011 conviction on charges he conspired to sell millions of dollars of weapons to Colombian rebels. He insisted he was a legitimate businessman.

Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot, is serving a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. after he was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the United States.

Russian officials have cast the convictions of Bout and Yaroshenko as politically driven and pushed for their release.

Bloomberg contributed.