MOSCOW — Paul Whelan, an American citizen imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, sharply criticized the handling of his case on Thursday and suggested he was being poorly treated at the Moscow prison where he has spent the past three months.
Since members of Russia’s security services, the FSB, seized Whelan in his Moscow hotel room in late December, charging him with espionage shortly after, there have been no formal or public statements explaining what crime the Michigan resident is accused of committing.
A citizen of four countries — Ireland, Canada and Britain, in addition to the United States — Whelan receives consular visits, but they are heavily restricted.
This week, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow called on the Russian government to allow consular officials unrestricted visits, so Whelan’s case can be discussed “freely and without obstruction .”
Whelan’s family says the investigator in the case is preventing his signed Privacy Act Waiver from reaching U.S. officials, hindering them from lobbying on his behalf and publicly disclosing case details. The embassy also says the family has been denied the power of attorney, despite the correct documentation being provided to prison officials.
“It seems fairly clear, although of course we don’t know, that he is being purposely isolated so that some sort of confession can be contrived and the Russians can save face,” Ryan Fayhee, a former Justice Department lawyer working pro bono for the Whelan family, told The Washington Post.
Statements from Whelan’s Russian attorney, who Fayhee says was appointed by the FSB, only seem to add to the obfuscation. Vladimir Zherebenkov said Thursday that his client had been set up by a member of the FSB when he was unwittingly handed a flash drive containing “state secrets.”
“He was framed,” Zherebenkov told reporters outside the courtroom.
Fayhee said Zherebenkov is clearly not acting in Whelan’s interest. “This is what is obvious, and troubling to the family,” the lawyer said.
“The Russians need to tell us what he did, what specifically happened. Otherwise, it’s unlawful,” Fayhee added.
Though President Trump has not commented on Whelan’s detention, and the response from the State Department has been minimal, there is a growing chorus of discontent in Congress. The House of Foreign Affairs Committee has called the detention “a blatant disregard of international law.”
A visibly vexed Whelan paced as the judge delivered his decision, before interrupting the Russian-language ruling to say, in a raised voice, “I don’t even have a translator!”
Zherebenkov speaks no English, but fellow defense attorney Olga Karlova hurried over to relay the judge’s words.
Dressed in a blue sweater over a blue-and-white checked shirt, Whelan looked composed, yet glum. When asked whether he had access to any English-language reading material, Whelan mouthed “none.”
On March 5, Whelan turned 49 in his cell at the notorious Lefortovo Prison on the outskirts of Moscow. None of his family’s 100-plus pieces of mail, including birthday cards, have reached him.
“No one in prison knew it was my birthday. There was no cake, no nothing,” Whelan said.