Lawyer: Appeal of Whelan's conviction, 16-year sentence likely in next two weeks

A Michigan security executive convicted of spying on the Russian government was sentenced to 16 years in a maximum-security prison colony on Monday, drawing the ire of U.S. and Michigan officials who called the trial unfair and verdict unreasonably harsh. 

The Russian lawyers for Paul Whelan, a 50-year-old from Novi, said an appeal is likely within the next couple of weeks. Olga Karlova and Vladimir Zherebenkov plan to review with Whelan the details of an appeal, which must be filed within about 10 days of sentencing. 

Whelan's sentencing in Moscow City Court is considered by Whelan's family to be a necessary hurdle to clear before the U.S. and Russia can begin negotiating in earnest to secure the former BorgWarner employee's release.

Paul Whelan

It is also unlikely Whelan will serve his sentence at a maximum-security labor camp because "he is too important," Karlova said. 

Whelan's family expressed worry over the trial but noted the verdict also might trigger further involvement from diplomats seeking some kind of deal.

"The Russian government has been clear, through statements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that it expected to extract concessions but that Paul's inclusion in those discussion would only happen after a conviction," Paul's brother, David Whelan, said in a statement Monday. "That time is here."

Paul Whelan has been allowed to call home to speak to his parents only once in the last 18 months and only after the court ordered he be able to do so. He spoke to his parents, who live in Manchester in Washtenaw County, this spring, David told The Detroit News last week. 

“They were really pleased to at least hear his voice and hear from him directly that he was doing fine, the best he could. But like his letters, he’s not allowed to say anything. Apparently, he was very careful and told my parents to be careful not to say anything that would cause the phone call to be disconnected because someone was listening to the call the entire time,” David told The News. 

“One of the really unfortunate outcomes is, if Paul has to serve a sentence — my parents are in their 80s and, when you do the math, they’re not going to be alive when he comes home. The longer the sentence, the longer he has to spend there, it increases the chances my parents won’t be around.”

Karlova on Monday said she and Zherebenkov have heard rumors of an exchange with the United States for Victor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko. Bout is a Russian arms trader convicted in 2011 of conspiring to sell weapons to Colombian rebels, while Yaroshenko is a Russian pilot arrested for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S., according to the Associated Press.

David Whelan told The News last week it was also possible the Russian foreign ministry might consider an exchange for access to diplomatic properties they've been denied access to in New York and Maryland.

Both he and the family's lawyer saw conviction as a necessary step toward negotiation between the U.S. and Russia.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Monday that the United States is outraged with the Monday ruling, which occurred after a "secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses." 

Pompeo demanded Whelan's release. 

"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 obligations," he said.

Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and director of global security for Auburn Hills auto parts supplier BorgWarner, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and charged with espionage, which carries an up to 20-year prison sentence.  Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested him at his hotel after agents allegedly found a USB drive with classified information in his room.

His family has said Whelan — who also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenship — was visiting the city for a friend's wedding. 

Whelan has told reporters in Moscow that a Russian friend in law enforcement planted the storage drive without his knowledge. He has denied being a spy.

Russian media reported during the trial that Whelan believes Ilya Yatsenko, an FSB agent, set him up to avoid repaying a $1,400 loan to him, David said. The FSB is the successor agency to the communist KGB secret police.

U.S. officials have decried Russia's handling of Whelan's case, noting there has been no credible evidence produced in court to show Whelans' guilt and prison officials at times have delayed Whelan's medical treatments.

“During his detention, Mr. Whelan has endured unimaginable hardships," Michigan's congressional delegation said Monday. "He was denied necessary medical care until his condition required a life-saving emergency surgery. He was barred from speaking to his family for over a year. He has been threatened by prison guards. 

“Despite months of harsh and cruel treatment, we remain steadfast in our commitment to working with the Whelan family to end this nightmare. Mr. Whelan should not continue to be held as a political prisoner, and he should be allowed to return home to his family in Michigan immediately.”

David Whelan also called on President Donald Trump "to bring Paul home."

"The court's decision merely completes the final piece of this broken judicial process," David Whelan said. "We had hoped that the court might show some independence, but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities."

Associated Press contributed.