The U.S. Department of State expressed outrage on Monday after a Russian court sentenced U.S. citizen Paul Whelan to 16 years in prison for espionage, as several lawmakers vowed to keep fighting for his release.
Whelan, a retired U.S. Marine, was arrested in December 2018 at a Moscow hotel while attending a wedding. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that he was “caught red handed,” but Whelan and his lawyers maintain that he was framed by state security.
Russian officials and Whelan’s lawyers have floated the possibility that Whelan could be released as part of a prisoner exchange. Whelan is also a Canadian, British, and Irish citizen.
“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,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling.”
Pompeo then demanded Whelan’s immediate release.
Amb. John Sullivan, the chief U.S. diplomat in Moscow, claimed that “if they can do this to Paul, they can do this to anyone.”
Members of Congress have taken an interest in securing his release.
The entire congressional delegation from Whelan’s home state of Michigan released a statement on Monday denouncing Russia’s “outlandish charges.”
“Despite months of harsh and cruel treatment, we remain steadfast in our commitment to working with the Whelan family to end this nightmare,” the statement declared. “Mr. Whelan should not continue to be held as a political prisoner, and he should be allowed to return home to his family in Michigan immediately.”
The delegation also claimed that Whelan was threatened by guards, and kept from speaking to his family, and “denied necessary medical care until his condition required a life-saving emergency surgery.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D–N.J.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also promised to work for Whelan’s release.
“With this expected yet outrageous verdict, Vladimir Putin's ‘justice’ system is imprisoning a falsely accused American on trumped up charges and for political reasons,” he said in a statement of his own. “To be clear, the end of the trial does not mark the end of our fight for Paul Whelan’s freedom.”
Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said that Russian security services told him they intend to hold Whelan as a bargaining chip to get arms dealer Viktor Bout or drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko released from U.S. prisons.
Russian officials had previously talked about exchanging an American for Yaroshenko, who has “close ties with Russian special services.”
The last major U.S.-Russian prisoner exchange took place in 2010, when Russia traded convicted spies with the United States and Britain.
One of the prisoners released to Britain, Sergei Skripal, was later poisoned in a suspected attack by Russian intelligence.
Sullivan, however, declined to comment on the possiblity.
“I’m in no position to discuss prisoner exchanges,” he said. “What we’re looking for is not an exchange, we’re looking for justice for Paul Whelan.”
Matthew Petti is a national security reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @matthew_petti.