Former US Marine Arrested in Russia

Gavin Kuncl, Writer

On Dec. 28, a former U.S. Marine was arrested in a hotel in Russia on suspicions of “carrying out an act of espionage”, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

Paul Whelan, 48, is a Michigan resident and former US marine who served two tours in Iraq in 2004 and 2006. His military career ended in 2008 with a court-martial on the charge of attempted larceny. Whelan was in Russia to attend the wedding of a fellow former US service member.  Whelan has citizenships to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. He had also been to Russia before, using two weeks leave while in the military to visit the country in 2006.

Whelan arrived in Russia on Dec. 22 and was picked up by FSB. He was found with “evidence that constitutes state secrets” when he was detained, according to his lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov. Before his arrest, Whelan had been given a thumb drive that he believed to be vacation photographs. He did not inspect the drive before detention and says he did not know it contained classified information. Whelan “does not admit guilt” according to Zherebenkov.

Zherebenkov said that Whelan’s defense team only had been provided five percent of the evidence gathered by investigators. Since his arrest, Whelan has been held without bail in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. Zherebenkov filed an appeal against the detention, calling it unwarranted and excessive. At a pretrial hearing Tuesday, Whelan’s bail was denied. He will remain in Lefortovo until at least Feb. 28.

Fears of Whelan’s treatment had emerged, given Russian treatment of prisoners in history has been less than spectacular, with the large gulags and the treatment of surrendering German Wehrmacht in World War two being massive prime examples of prisoner treatment. The prison he is in, Lefortovo, being a former KGB jail for political prisoners. Despite the history, Zherebenkov said the prison had been treating Whelan well, and that Whelan was in good spirits. On Tuesday, two Russian prisoner rights monitors, Eva Merkacheva and Yevgeny Yenikyeyev attempted to visit Whelan. The rights monitors were not allowed to visit Whelan, only seeing a glimpse of him for a few seconds, but they were allowed to visit his cell and talk to his cellmate. Whelan appeared to be dressed well and well fed. His cell was roughly 26 to 29 square feet, with a refrigerator, a real toilet, and television that broadcasted Russian TV. His cellmate, Oleg Antoshin, was considered polite and educated, speaking basic English, helping Whelan with the guards and teaching him some basic Russian. Antoshin was in Lefortovo for illegal weapons possession. Despite the good appearance on the outside, a case like Otto Warmbier could be building. Warmbier was detained for years in North Korea, having a fine appearance and communicating that he was okay, but passing away due to massive brain damage once returning to the United States.

The family of Whelan has rejected the accusations of Russia, asserting Whelan was only in the country for vacation. Whelan’s twin brother David wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that his brother is not a spy. His brother told the Washington Post that “he is many things to many people, but he is not a spy.” His brother also posted on Twitter that Whelan has “traveled extensively over the last 30 years,” with a picture of many postcards he has sent.

If Whelan was found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Whelan’s arrest has raised speculation that he could be swapped for one of the Russians held in the US, such as Maria Butina. Butina was convicted of being a foreign agent last month and arrested on July 15. She admitted to one charge of conspiracy to infiltrate the National Rifle Association with the long-term goal of swaying US policy towards Russia. Among evidence recovered was contact information of people suspected of being employed by FSB. Russian officials described the case against her as fabricated and that she was a victim to political inquisition. Butina will remain in jail until she is sentenced.

In regards to the potential swapping of Butina and Whelan, Moscow rejected the idea while saying that it does not treat people as pawns in diplomatic games.

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