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Lawyer for former US marine arrested for spying in Russia insists he has been framed in a KGB setup as court rules to hold him in jail for three more months
- Paul Whelan, of Michigan, is being held in a Moscow jail on espionage charges
- The 48-year-old was arrested in Russia’s capital in December amid claims he was caught with a ‘USB stick containing names of Russian agents’
- Defense attorney Vladimir Zherebenkov says Whelan was given the memory stick by a Russian acquaintance and believed it contained holiday photos
- Zherebenkov accused the Russian friend of taking part in a sting operation to frame Whelan – who has denied all charges against him
- The Moscow City Court on Thursday upheld a ruling that ordered Whelan’s detainment at least until the end of May
The lawyer for a former US Marine who has been jailed in Moscow on espionage charges says his client is being set up by Russia’s security services.
Paul Whelan, of Michigan, was arrested in a hotel room in the Russian capital in late December and accused of ‘unspecified spying activity’ amid claims he was caught with a ‘USB stick containing names of Russian agents’.
Defense attorney Vladimir Zherebenkov has said Whelan was given the memory stick by a Russian acquaintance and believed that it contained holiday photographs – not the ‘state secrets’ that Russian intelligence officials say was on it.
The Moscow City Court on Thursday upheld the ruling that ordered keeping Whelan in jail at least until the end of May.
Outside the courtroom, Zherebenkov for the first time directly accused the Russian friend of taking part in a sting operation to frame the 48-year-old.
‘I believe that it was a joint provocation from the side of his acquaintance and Russia’s security services,’ the attorney told ABC News.
Zherebenkov said that the allegations of Whelan spying ‘in the interests of the US’ seem to be based largely on the fact that he’d travelled to Russia on an American passport. Whelan also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenship.
Former US Marine Paul Whelan, of Michigan, is being held in a Moscow jail on charges of spying on the Russian government to benefit the US. He is seen entering court on Thursday
Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov (right with his client in February) says the 48-year-old is being set up by Russia’s security services
During his appeal hearing on Thursday, Whelan appeared agitated as he stood inside a glass cage guarded by a masked officer.
At one point during the hearing for his alleged espionage, reporters shouted questions at Whelan, who hasn’t been seen in public since his last court appearance in January.
One journalist asked the 49-year-old Michigan native if he was being framed.
‘What do you think?’ Whelan replied, before deferring questions to Zherebenkov.
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Moments later, Whelan shouted angrily at courtroom officials, demanding his legally-mandated translator when the judge began reading a ruling in Russian.
A second Russian attorney, Olga Karlova, rushed over and began translating the judge’s remarks to her client.
‘This is a kangaroo court,’ he told reporters after the judge rejected his appeal and sent him back to the notorious Lefortovo jail, a former KGB prison in Moscow.
Whelan is seen in court on Thursday as a judge upheld an earlier ruling to keep him in a Moscow jail for three more months as he faces espionage charges
Whelan was arrested in a hotel room in the Russian capital at the end of last December amid claims he was caught with a ‘USB stick containing names of Russian agents’
Whelan, head of global security for a US car parts firm, has been living a tourist’s nightmare since he traveled to Moscow in December to attend the wedding of a fellow Marine veteran, according to his twin brother David.
Zherebenkov said his client told him he met up with an unidentified friend in a unit inside the Hotel Metropol on December 28 to receive what Whelan thought was a flash drive containing pictures of tourist destinations.
Suddenly, agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) stormed into the hotel room and took Whelan into custody. They claimed that the flash drive he was seeking contained ‘state secrets,’ including a list of secret Russian operatives.
Zherebenkov said Whelan has denied knowing what was on the drive and that Whelan’s ‘friend’ may have set him up to advance his career. Whelan’s twin, David, tweeted that his brother had been ‘entrapped by the FSB’.
The Hill reports US officials have speculated Whelan’s arrest was the Kremlin’s payback for the arrest and conviction of Russian foreign agent Maria Butina, a supposed gun rights activist who has pleaded guilty to trying to infiltrate the US conservative movement.
Whelan’s arrest came 15 days after Butina pleaded guilty in court on December 13.
‘It’s clearly a provocation,’ Zherebenkov told ABC News of his client’s arrest. ‘Paul claims that and the investigation for now cannot refute that. In the words of Paul, it is a fantasy of the FSB.’
Whelan is being detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, a former KGB jail known for housing accused spies, political dissidents and high-profile suspects.
If convicted of spying, Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison.
Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said he visited the jail in early January and found him in a ‘very hopeful’ mood. The ex-marine is seen above in a courtroom cage in Moscow in February after an initial ruling regarding the extension of his detention
It is speculated Whelan is being used as a bargaining chip in the case of Maria Butina (above), who is due to be sentenced in the US after admitting she acted as an illegal Russian agent
US diplomats and Whelan’s family have said they are worried he is being deliberately isolated to keep him from communicating with his loved ones back home or hiring his own lawyer.
President Donald Trump has mentioned that the White House is keeping an eye on Whelan’s case, but the Commander and Chief still hasn’t made a formal comment on the matter. Neither has the US State Department.
Foreign policy analysts have theorized Russia may want to negotiate a prisoner exchange for Whelan, but the Kremlin has denied this, saying the alleged espionage case against him is not politically motivated.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed growing concern. US Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who serves as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined a group of US Senators last week in demanding Russia release Whelan immediately, saying the foreign country’s ongoing treatment of the 48-year-old violates international law.
Diplomats from Russia’s US embassy are scheduled to visit with Whelan again on Friday, ABC News reported.
Whelan was kicked out of the marines about 10 years ago for attempted larceny and dereliction of duty.
An unidentified Russian security source told Rosbalt that he started making Russian friends on the internet a decade ago.
After two years, he visited Moscow ‘pretending’ to want to socialize with his new friends.
Rosbalt said: ‘What stood out was that Whelan was not at all interested in pretty Russian girls, preferring instead to spend his time drinking with his male internet friends.’
US diplomats and Whelan’s family have said they are worried he is being deliberately isolated to keep him from communicating with his loved ones back home or hiring his own lawyer
The former marine, now head of global security for a US car parts firm, was arrested at Moscow’s lavish Metropol Hotel (pictured) on December 28
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