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Verdict Is In For American In Russia Accused Of Spying


Today, a court in Moscow sentenced Paul Whelan to 16 years in prison. Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who was arrested a year and a half ago. Russia accused him of espionage. Although, his family thinks he is a hostage. Whelan's lawyer says her client has been told he will be part of a prisoner swap for a Russian national held in the U.S. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: The FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service, arrested Paul Whelan in a Moscow hotel in late December 2018. The FSB accuses the 50-year-old of receiving state secrets on a flash drive. That's almost all we know about Whelan case since it's classified as top secret. And the trial has taken place behind closed doors. For Whelan's family, months of waiting are finally over.

DAVID WHELAN: I'm thrilled that the trial is coming to an end.

KIM: That's David Wieland, Paul's twin brother who lives in Canada. He believes the conclusion of the trial will lead to his brother's release.

WHELAN: I think Paul is being held hostage until they can somehow extort either people or property back from the United States.

KIM: Whelan, who served in Iraq, was the head of security for a U.S. auto parts manufacturer. He frequently visited Russia as a tourist and says he was in Moscow for a friend's wedding when he was arrested. He spent more than a year in pre-trial detention. His brother, David, says the only link to the family was a single phone call and letters that took months to arrive. Paul Whelan's time in jail has also been complicated by health problems.

WHELAN: They wouldn't even let him speak to an English-speaking doctor because they thought that the English-speaking doctor would also be a spy and might exchange information with Paul, which is why he didn't get medical care until his hernia finally strangulated and he had an emergency.

KIM: Whelan's family maintains he was entrapped.

OLGA KARLOVA: It's a classic case of cold-blooded provocation.

KIM: That's Olga Karlova, a member of Whelan's defense team. She says the government's case is flimsy.

KARLOVA: I can't accept innuendo, insinuations, circumstantial trivia, hearsay, rambling conjecture. You cannot ascribe the offense to any person basing on such kind of evidence. You are obliged to prove every statement in the indictment.

WHELAN: The secrecy of the case means she can't go into any detail. That's also frustrated U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan, who made a video statement during the trial.

JOHN SULLIVAN: There's been talk of evidence, allusion to evidence and even allusions to discussion of evidence. But where is the evidence itself? Hearings are taking place behind closed doors in secrecy.

KIM: Sullivan complained American diplomats have had limited access to Whelan.

SULLIVAN: Even this small piece of humanity is denied him. Even our attempt to deliver masks, gloves and sanitizer, items to protect him from COVID-19, was denied.

KIM: Despite what Whelan's family says, the Kremlin has insisted he's not a bargaining chip. But last week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov suggested prisoner swaps could be a first step to improving bilateral relations. During a discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, he mentioned Russians still in U.S. custody, such as convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.

SERGEI RYABKOV: Why couldn't they find way how to assuage the situation? Similar situations with U.S. citizens who served their sentences in Russia. We have earlier proposed exchanges of those persons.

KIM: David Whelan is counting on his brother being one of them.

WHELAN: The Russians may be open to speaking to the Americans or someone else to finally lay out what it is they are hoping to get.

KIM: But for now, the family's waiting continues.

Lucien Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "LUX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.