American Paul Whelan, a former Marine, was convicted by Russia of spying Monday, receiving a 16-year prison sentence in a maximum-security prison colony.
Whelan pleaded not guilty to the espionage charges and claimed he was set up in a sting operation orchestrated by Russia's intelligence services. He was visiting Russia for the wedding of a friend when he was arrested in December 2018 after receiving a USB flash drive that allegedly contained classified Russian information.
Whelan's trial began March 23, but the proceedings have been closed to the public, and many of the case's details have emerged through his lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov.
"This is slimy, grubby, greasy Russian politics. Nothing more, nothing less," Whelan said before the sentencing. Prosecutors asked for an 18-year prison sentence.
Zherebenkov said Whelan would appeal the verdict. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow denounced Whelan's trial as unfair and said no evidence for his alleged crimes was provided. In Russia, a maximum-security prison colony is akin to a labor camp.
Whelan, 50, is the director of global security for a Michigan-based auto supplier. He was born in Canada to British parents and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, described the allegations against Whelan as spurious and the court case as a "mockery of justice." Former CIA agents told USA TODAY that Whelan does not fit the profile of a covert U.S. intelligence operative and that it's more likely the Russians nabbed him as leverage against the Trump administration in a game of geopolitical chess.
"If Paul were being tried in Washington – or Dublin, London, or Ottawa – then I might have some anxiety about the outcome. A conviction would reflect evidence of guilt, a sentence would reflect the severity of Paul's actions," Whelan's brother, David, wrote in an email to reporters before the verdict. "But this is Russia. A conviction merely reflects that the defendant did not confess. And the sentence, whatever it may be, says more about the legal system than it does about the defendant's actions."
Whelan said he is a victim of "political kidnapping" and begged President Donald Trump to intervene on his behalf. "Mr. President, we cannot keep America great unless we aggressively protect American citizens wherever they are in the world," he said from inside a glass enclosure in Moscow City Court in June last year.
Whelan said he has been threatened, abused and unable to access medical care during his imprisonment in a czarist-era Moscow prison. After the verdict, his brother said in a statement that the family will continue "to fight for Paul's release" and that they were "looking to the U.S government to immediately take steps to bring (him) home."
"We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities," the statement said.
Though Trump has touted his record of securing the release of Americans held abroad – including Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran freed by Iran – the president has said little publicly about Whelan. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Moscow to release Whelan last week. "Rest assured Ambassador Sullivan and his team will keep fighting for Paul," Pompeo said.
Monday, Pompeo said he was "outraged by the decision of a Russian court today to convict U.S. citizen Paul Whelan after a secret trial, with secret evidence and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses."
Xiyue Wang, an American graduate student who spent more than three years behind bars in Iran before being released in December, told NPR in an interview that his Iranian interrogators were not especially interested in gleaning any information from him. He was told he was held because Iran's authorities believed he would be useful in their negotiations with the United States. Relations have deteriorated under Trump.