Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has denounced the conviction by a Russian court of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan, a former Marine, on charges of spying.
“The United States is 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,” Pompeo said in a June 15 statement.
A Russian court sentenced Whelan, an American security executive, to 16 years in a maximum-security prison.
“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,” Pompeo said, while demanding Whelan’s “immediate release.”
Whelan, who also holds British, Irish, and Canadian citizenship, denied the charges of spying for the United States, saying he was set up. Whelan’s lawyer has said his client was handed a flash drive that had classified information on it that he didn’t know about.
The 50-year-old corporate security executive from Novi, Michigan, was arrested in a sting operation in Moscow in December 2018 while he was there to attend a friend’s wedding.
Whelan has complained of poor prison conditions in Russia and has said his life is in danger. Last month, Whelan underwent surgery for a hernia.
“The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling,” Pompeo said.
“Russia failed to provide Mr. Whelan with a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal, and during his detention has put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition,” Pompeo said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected allegations that Whelan has become a political hostage, saying during a conference call with reporters that his guilt was proven during the trial.
Peskov refused to comment on whether Russia could be eyeing Whelan’s exchange for some of its citizens in U.S. custody.
But Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, pointed at Russian official statements signaling a possibility that Whelan could be exchanged for Russians.
“There have been proposals of exchange, the issue is being discussed,” he said.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement after the verdict that he believes the conviction makes a prisoner swap more likely.
In an email cited by The Guardian, David Whelan wrote, “The court’s decision merely completes the final piece of this broken judicial process.”
“We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities,” he wrote.
Speaking to reporters after the verdict, U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan denounced the secret trial, during which no evidence was produced as an egregious violation of human rights and international legal norms. He described Whelan’s conviction as “a mockery of justice” and also demanded his immediate release.
Sullivan, in an earlier statement, criticized Russian authorities for not allowing Whelan to contact his family while in detention and that he has been denied medical examination by an independent doctor.
“What is more disheartening is that Paul has not been able to talk with his family in 16 months—not one phone call to his elderly parents, brothers, or sister,” Sullivan said.
“Speaking of suffering, Paul continues to endure complicated medical issues that are potentially life-threatening and require treatment. We have repeatedly asked for our doctors to visit Paul but have been met with only denials,” Sullivan said.
“I remain concerned about Paul’s health and welfare; he needs medical care and he needs to go home. That’s the bottom line,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.