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‘I defend famous people’: Paul Whelan’s Russian attorney is used to the spotlight.

Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in Moscow last month and accused of espionage. (Courtesy of Whelan's family) (Whelan Family/Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

MOSCOW — Russian lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov has defended a slew of colorful characters in the course of his career, including oligarchs, politicians and alleged smugglers.

But the addition to his client roster of Paul Whelan, an American arrested by Russian authorities in Moscow in late December and later charged with espionage, has made Zherebenkov global front-page news.

Paul Whelan probably isn’t a spy. So why did Russia detain him?

The 59-year-old lawyer appears unfazed. “I defend famous people,” he told The Washington Post. “So it makes sense that I defend Paul Whelan.”

Zherebenkov said he was not appointed to the case by the state; rather, he said, Whelan sought him out. But he added: “Who recommended me to Whelan is a secret between me and him."

The lawyer’s career suggests the more scandalous the charge, the more his interest in a case is piqued.

Bespectacled and with a mop of ginger hair, Zherebenkov has appeared in court here increasingly often in recent years, defending high-profile people in trouble and becoming the go-to lawyer for Russian journalists seeking a sound bite of legalese.

Whelan, a 48-year-old former Marine with multiple citizenships who was court-martialed for stealing thousands of dollars from the U.S. government, resulting in a bad-conduct discharge from the corps, was arrested Dec. 28 by Russia’s domestic security services. The Michigan resident was in Moscow for a fellow Marine’s wedding, according to his family.

The American detained in Russia has four passports. That could help him – or hurt him.

Whelan has since been charged with espionage, although Russia, which is halfway through its epic winter holidays, when government and many businesses are shut, has provided no details about what he is accused of doing.

Zherebenkov communicates with Whelan through an interpreter. “He’s a really nice guy. He’s dealing with this well,” Zherebenkov said.

Whelan’s computer, telephone and social media accounts are now being combed by experts for the prosecution, said Zherebenkov, who maintains there was insufficient evidence for his arrest. He said his client, who is in a detention center on Moscow’s outskirts, will not appear in court for at least six months.

Whelan also holds British, Irish and Canadian passports, in addition to his U.S. one. On Monday, his family said it has been in touch with representatives of all four countries. The U.S. Embassy will take the lead on consular efforts since Whelan entered Russia on his U.S. passport, his twin brother, David, said in an emailed statement.

Zherebenkov said Whelan is at least the third American he has defended. In 2007, he recalled, he represented Seattle crab mogul Arkadi Gontmakher, who was seized in his Moscow hotel room — as was Whelan, allegedly. Gontmakher, a U.S. citizen who was born in Ukraine, was imprisoned on charges of smuggling millions of pounds of crab illegally taken from Russia’s Pacific waters.

Acquitted on the crab-smuggling charges but not others, Gontmakher made it back to the United States in 2011, but his case remains a sticking point in U.S.-Russian relations. “Before Whelan, the crab case was my most high-profile American,” Zherebenkov said.

Last year, he took on the case of a Russian man accused of smuggling $60 million worth of cocaine from Argentina to Russia. Andrei Kovalchuk, who is in prison awaiting trial, had allegedly stashed the drugs in brightly colored suitcases in an embassy school’s yard in Buenos Aires.

Zherebenkov has, with mixed results, defended former Russian mayors and regional governors in high-profile corruption cases. He also represented cellphone tycoon Yevgeny Chichvarkin, who was forced into exile a decade ago after the Russian government accused him of kidnapping. Chichvarkin now runs a wine emporium in London.

In 2005, Zherebenkov served as the attorney for former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a major gas-smuggling case. She was cleared of all charges.

“I’m relatively successful,” he said breezily.

Read more:

American charged with espionage in Russia has an unlikely background for a spy

Family of American arrested in Russia on spy charges fears for his safety