Whelan lawyers petition for his transfer to serve out sentence in U.S. prison

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Lawyers for Michigan's Paul Whelan in Russia on Friday filed a petition with a Russian court for an international transfer for him to serve out the rest of his sentence in the United States.

Attorney Olga Karlova said she doesn't know how much time it will take the court to consider and rule on the matter.

"Paul asked us to start the process when we visited him in Mordovia in June," Karlova said by email. "He is virtually incommunicado. We are not able to speak with him."

Whelan, 51, of Novi is a former security executive who has been in custody in Russia since his arrest at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and conviction on espionage charges a year ago that he's vehemently denied. He is now serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor at a prison camp in Mordovia.

Karlova told the news agency Interfax that it's not clear what Whelan understands about the legal process for the transfer or whether he has confirmed his support for it. 

Paul Whelan, a former BorgWarner employee from Novi, was jailed for alleged spying in Russia a year ago. His family has worked to free him.

The Russian court would have to grant the transfer petition, and the Russian and U.S. governments would also both have to agree to the transfer for it to happen, said Whelan's brother, David.

David noted the warden at the IK-17 prison camp continues to prohibit Paul from phoning his lawyers or the U.S. Embassy, where he could be able to get information or advice on the matter. 

"We hope that Paul's wishes are clarified soon and that the (Federal Penitentiary Service) stops prohibiting access to his lawyer," David said. 

"While it might be positive to have Paul out of Russia, a successful transfer allows the Russian government to launder wrongful convictions," David added. 

If the transfer goes through, "Paul would then be serving a 16-year sentence for a crime he didn't commit, only in a U.S. prison and without a possibility to appeal the wrongful conviction. That doesn't seem like fairness or justice."

The State Department said Friday it continues to press the Russian government to release Whelan. Consular officers last visited Paul on May 20. "We will continue to seek contact with him and monitor his case closely," a spokeswoman said.

U.S. officials and lawmakers have repeatedly called for Paul Whelan's release, as well another American prisoner, Trevor Reed of Texas. Both men traveled to Russia as tourists.

President Joe Biden in June described both Whelan and Reed as "wrongfully imprisoned" in Russia and advocated on their behalf with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Geneva summit in June.

Earlier this month, Paul Whelan was released from a month-longstay in solitary confinement, during which time he was not permitted to exercise or shower, his family has said. It's been unclear to his family why Paul was sent into isolation.