Michigan man to be sentenced in Moscow, faces 18 years in labor camp

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

After nearly 18 months in prison, Michigan's Paul Whelan is expected to be sentenced Monday in Moscow as his espionage trial there concludes. 

Prosecutors are seeking up to 18 years in a labor camp, which Whelan's family and attorneys consider particularly harsh, Whelan's twin brother David said. 

Whelan, 50, of Novi has maintained his innocence. His attorneys pressed for acquittal.

His family doesn't really know what’s going to happen Monday, but they expect Whelan will be automatically convicted under Russia's justice system, which involves no due process. A conviction in Russia, David said, means the defendant didn't confess. 

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

"I’m concerned and anxious for Paul. No one wants to be sentenced to 18 years, even if it’s for show. He is the one who will face going to a labor camp in 30 days," David said. "But I really am very hopeful that finally that’s out of the way."

The family is eager for the verdict because that means Whelan can finally move to the next step, where diplomats become heavily involved. 

The Russian foreign ministry has indicated during the last year its interest in trading the American for certain Russian prisoners or for access to diplomatic properties the they've been denied access to in New York and Maryland, David said. 

"Conviction is a necessary occurrence, so that Paul can then be considered in that potential for whatever concession the Russian government is looking for," David said. 

"The sentence is almost immaterial because we don’t want him to have any of the sentence over there. It’s much more about getting past this procedural milestone, so on the government-to-government side they can have discussions about some sort of future exchange."

Paul Whelan, who grew up in Ann Arbor, was arrested in December 2018 in a Moscow hotel room and charged with espionage, which carries up to 20 years in prison in Russia. 

The former U.S. Marine was director of global security for auto parts supplier BorgWarner in Auburn Hills and was visiting Moscow for a friend's wedding, according to his family. 

He has denied being a spy and urged President Donald Trump to intervene, telling reporters in Moscow that a Russian friend in law enforcement planted a hard drive on him without his knowing. 

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

In prison, Paul was denied treatment for a painful hernia that worsened and led to emergency surgery two weeks ago. He was transferred back to Lefortovo prison the next day, David said. 

U.S. lawmakers and diplomats have repeatedly urged Russia to send Paul home, criticizing the fairness of the judicial process, the lack of evidence against him and the conditions in which he's been held.

“We ... call on Russia to do the same for Paul Whelan, who needs to be released now," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Wednesday in Washington. 

Ryan Fayhee, the Whelan family's attorney, has said Paul doesn't fit the profile of a spy, as the U.S. government wouldn't send someone to engage in intelligence gathering without diplomatic cover.

It's unclear why Paul was arrested — whether it was carefully orchestrated or was the product of negligence, said Fayhee, who worked in the Justice Department's counter-espionage section.

"What is clear is that Paul is not a spy and that he has subsequently been held, isolated from his family and subjected to a secret 'trial' that will lead to its forgone conclusion," Fayhee said Friday. 

"This has all been done to seek some advantage or to extract some benefit from the U.S. government, as has been made quite clear time and again openly by Russian officials." 

As a matter of policy, U.S. officials have necessarily been deferential to the Russian judicial process, Fayhee said, but once there is a conviction that deference will cease on both sides. 

"And so, optimistically, Paul’s family very much hopes that with Paul’s conviction, a more intensive political process can begin after 18 long months," Fayhee said. 

"We hope and expect, come Monday, the full court press will begin. ... We look forward to the coming engagement, whatever it brings."