U.S. rejects proposal for spy swap of ex-Marine held in Russia

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The United States rejected on Wednesday a suggestion it seek a prisoner swap involving a former U.S. Marine jailed in Russia for nearly a year over spying allegations, and called for his immediate release.

Paul Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 last year.

After a U.S. diplomat visited him in jail on Wednesday, the U.S. embassy complained about Whelan’s declining health and called Russia’s treatment of him “shameful”, saying Moscow had refused to allow the diplomat to bring him Thanksgiving dinner.

Moscow says Whelan was caught red-handed with a computer flash drive containing classified information. Whelan says he was set up in a sting and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained holiday photos.

He has been held in pre-trial detention while investigators look into his case.

Whelan’s Russian lawyer earlier this month urged the United States and other countries to push for a prisoner swap with Moscow that could get his client released.

But Julie Fisher, the chargée d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, dismissed any such exchange.

“There is no need to discuss a swap,” Fisher told reporters after visiting Whelan in prison. “There is no evidence, no crime,” said Fisher. “They need to release him. Paul has not been charged with a crime.”

Fisher also complained about what she said was Whelan’s declining health and about what she said was the Russian refusal to allow an outside doctor into prison to examine him.

He had not been allowed a single phone call to his family during the 11 months of his detention, and the U.S. Embassy said Fisher had not been allowed even to deliver Whelan a Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday.

“Russian authorities denied Paul Whelan the minor comfort of a Thanksgiving dinner today. As American families around the world gather, Paul marks 11 months in prison and can’t even call his parents. This is shameful treatment,” tweeted Rebecca Ross, the U.S. Embassy’s spokeswoman.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Ex-U.S. marine held in Russia for spying was misled, says lawyer

Former U.S. marine Paul Whelan, who was detained by Russia's FSB security service on suspicion of spying, looks out of a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The lawyer for a former U.S. Marine accused of spying by Russia said on Tuesday that his client had been misled before his arrest and believed that a thumb drive handed to him in a hotel room had contained holiday snaps rather than secret information.

Russia’s Federal Security Service detained Paul Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28.

Whelan appeared in a Moscow court on Tuesday, where a judge rejected a release on bail. If found guilty of espionage, he could be jailed for up to 20 years.

Whelan, who denies the charges, was detained after receiving a thumb drive containing a list of all the employees of a secret Russian state agency, the Russian online news portal Rosbalt.ru reported this month.

Rosbalt cited an unnamed Russian intelligence source as saying that Whelan had been spying for 10 years, using the internet to identify targets from whom he could obtain information and that the list he was caught with had long been of interest to U.S. spies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to support that version of events, later telling reporters Whelan had been “caught red-handed” carrying out “specific illegal actions” in his hotel room.

But Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan’s lawyer, said on Tuesday that his client had accepted the information unknowingly.

“Paul was actually meant to receive information from an individual that was not classified,” Zherebenkov told reporters.

“These were cultural things, a trip to a cathedral, Paul’s holiday … photographs. But as it turned out, it (the thumb drive) contained classified information.”

The lawyer said Whelan had not been able to see what was on the thumb drive because he had been detained before he had a chance to do so.

Wearing a blue shirt and dark trousers, he looked calm but somber as he stood inside a glass cage in the courtroom.

The hearing was closed to reporters, but his lawyer said afterward that Whelan had made a 15-minute speech rejecting the allegations against him in detail.

The lawyer declined to clarify if Whelan had known the individual who handed him the information.

He said Whelan had been experiencing some minor health problems in custody and was receiving treatment.

Whelan’s family have said he is innocent and was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

(Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Kevin Liffey)