A Russian court on Monday sentenced an American citizen to 16 years in prison on spying charges.
The American is Paul Whelan, a security executive and Marine Corps veteran who was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 when he came to attend a friend’s wedding.
Whelan has denied the allegations of espionage and insisted that he has not received a fair trial. At his sentencing, he protested from behind a glass screen, holding up a hand-written sign with phrases including “Sham trial” and “No human rights,” CNN reported.
U.S. officials emphatically agree.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the performance by Russian authorities as “appalling,” and saying “the United States is outraged” by Whelan’s conviction “after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses.”
”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,” he said in a statement.
U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan said after the verdict that the proceedings were “a mockery of justice,” according to the Associated Press. Sullivan demanded his immediate release.
Russian officials blandly maintained that the American complaints were unjustified. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a conference call that Whelan was “convicted on charges that were proven in court and accepted by the court.”
Of course, one would have to take Peskov’s word for that, since no information about the trial was allowed out.
Peskov also rebuffed accusations that the charges against Whelan were contrived for the purpose of using him as a hostage to arrange a swap for two Russian nationals currently serving time in U.S. prisons: Viktor Bout, convicted of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of arms to Colombian rebels; and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot found guilty of smuggling cocaine. They are serving 25 and 20 years respectively.
There is good reason to believe that is exactly what lies behind the Whelan case. Because that’s the way Moscow operates.
Just last November, Russia concluded a peculiar, three-way swap of prisoners with Norway and Lithuania. Russia’s quarrel was actually only with Norway, which was seeking the release of one of its citizens sitting in a Russian prison on spying charges. Lacking any Russian prisoners to barter with, Oslo turned to Lithuania, which obliged, supplying a Russian national being held in its custody, to effect the deal.
According to the U.K. Guardian, Russia in fact broached a similar deal to free Whelan in 2019, but had to wait for the “judicial process” to take its course first.
Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, confirmed this week that “there have been proposals of exchange [for Bout and Yaroshenko], the issue is being discussed.”
“If Trump releases one of ours, then I’m sure that ours will release someone too,” Zherebenkov said in November. “It’s high politics. I want to say that our president is absolutely sane about this. Putin sees this all rather calmly. Why not [make a trade]?”
The question is meant to be rhetorical, but there is a reason the United States is not taking the matter so calmly.
As Ambassador Sullivan pointed out, “If they can do this to Paul, they can do this to anyone. A secret trial with the inability to defend oneself … it’s a mockery of justice, in addition to the fact that he’s been horribly mistreated,” he said. That was a reference to the Russians’ failure to treat a long-standing medical condition during his detention, placing Whelan’s life at risk.
By contrast, the Russians held in U.S. prisons were not subjected to secret trials.
“For all the criticism Russia [leveled] against the United States over the years, including most recently [in the George Floyd case], one thing I haven’t heard criticized is our criminal justice system, the commitment to due process and fundamental rights … to a conviction after a public trial, and Paul has been denied that from the beginning,” Sullivan said.
This is the Kremlin’s idea of diplomacy; brutal hostage-taking and trading of innocent persons for the convicted criminals they want back.
In the end, Washington may decide that after all the protestations, humanity dictates that the swap be made, that Paul Whelan’s freedom and well-being are more important than the continued incarceration of arms and drug smugglers, no matter how justified.
The vulnerability to similar injustice of Americans traveling in Russia remains a grave concern, though as a matter for the future, may be outweighed by the immediate plight of Whelan.
But that is a decision for the U.S. to make. In any case, we look forward to seeing Paul Whelan back home soon.