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Russian prison denies delivery of protective gear for Paul Whelan amid pandemic

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Russian prison authorities denied protective health gear for Michigan's Paul Whelan, who remains in solitary confinement in Moscow as his espionage trial is delayed, his family said.

U.S. Embassy staff were able to deliver food last week for Whelan to Lefortovo prison, but prison officials would not accept the personal protective equipment, said David Whelan, Paul's twin brother.

"They took masks, gloves and wipes, and all were refused," David Whelan said Thursday. "Since then, Moscow has been locked down, and Paul will not have outside visitors for some time."

Whelan, 50, of Novi was arrested 15 months ago in a Moscow hotel room and charged with espionage, which carries up to 20 years in prison in Russia. 

Paul Whelan of Novi has been imprisoned since his arrest for  alleged spying in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018.

The former U.S. Marine, who was director of global security for auto parts supplier BorgWarner in Auburn Hills, has denied the charges and has urged President Donald Trump to intervene. 

Whelan has told reporters in Moscow that a Russian friend planted a hard drive on him without his knowing. 

U.S. lawmakers and diplomats have urged Russia to produce credible evidence against Whelan or release him from custody. He's not been able to speak to his family since his arrest.

The trial for Whelan was expected to begin last month but was pushed back. His next hearing has been postponed until April 13, David Whelan said. 

"Unless the pandemic precautions in Moscow change, that date is likely to be rescheduled as well," he said. 

The Whelan family continues to sound alarms about Paul's health in prison, especially the denial of medical intervention for a preexisting hernia, and about his treatment and isolation by Russian authorities. 

"The prison's inability to handle even the most rudimentary medical issues doesn't give us much confidence" amid the coronavirus outbreak, David Whelan said.

"The prison has apparently taken precautions, including changing how Lefortovo is staffed, in order to minimize the risk. But they could go one better by releasing Paul — and the couple of dozen other Americans held in Russia — and give him an opportunity to protect himself from the virus back home in the USA."

David Whelan said he's monitoring Russian media for news of any infections in the Russian prison system, and has not seen any reported so far.  

John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, met with Whelan last week when he was in court for a hearing. 

"There's no evidence & clearly no crime," Sullivan tweeted Thursday. "We all want to see Paul go home. Now." 

He spoke by phone Thursday with Michigan lawmakers on a call set up by U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, who represents Paul Whelan in Congress.  

“For the last 15 months, we’ve sort of been locked in a pretty bad game with the Russians where they say we’re going to delay his trial, and then he has a trial date, and they delay it again,” Stevens said, noting the most recent delay was attributed to the pandemic.

“They have not produced any evidence and not properly tried this individual for 15 months.”

She said lawmakers asked Sullivan about Whelan's safety amid the pandemic and his potential exposure to the virus in prison. 

"The State Department is taking that very seriously," Stevens said. 

The Michigan delegation last year introduced a bipartisan resolution led by Stevens and the state's senators, urging Russia to reveal its evidence against Whelan or "immediately" release him from prison. The House adopted the measure, but the GOP-led Senate has not.

Having the Senate take up the resolution "would obviously be very significant," Stevens said. 

"The goal and all this activity centers around ensuring his safety and his safe return home," she added. 

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, a Tipton Republican, said he told U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, that he would urge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, to take up the Whelan resolution and pass it.

Walberg, who participated in Thursday's call with Sullivan, said Whelan’s trial in mid-April before a three-judge panel could last three days or more, and the expectation is he will be automatically convicted under the Russian system, which involves no due process.

A verdict should allow diplomats to begin discussions about potentially trading Whelan for a convicted Russian national held in U.S. prison, Walberg said. 

"This is only inference from past performance of the Russians relative to prisoners, but the assumption could be made that at some point in time the Russians are going to try to use Paul as a trading tool," said Walberg, whose district is home to Whelan's parents. 

"Probably what ultimately needs to be done is have Paul convicted by the three-judge panel, and then those negotiations can probably start." 

Walberg said his colleagues from Michigan also plan to send a letter to House members to stress their continuing concern about Whelan's uncertain trial date, his physical condition going unaddressed and his solitary confinement without any certainty about the charges or evidence against him.

"We need to do everything possible to draw attention to the injustice that is taking place with one of our citizens in a Russian jail right now," Walberg said. 

mburke@detroitnews.com