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Russia convicts ex-Marine for spying; sentences to 16 years

A Russian court handed a 16 year sentence to Paul Whelan, an ex-US marine who was imprisoned for spying. While Whelan and the US maintain innocence, the authorities in Russia are less convinced.

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A Russian court on Monday sentenced former US marine Paul Whelan to 16 years in a penal colony for espionage in a verdict that has outraged Washington. As Russia convicts the ex-Marine, tensions between the two nuclear armed arch rivals are forecasted to escalate further, as a response from the United States is awaited.

A Moscow court found Whelan guilty of receiving classified information as he stood in the dock with a sign that read “Sham trial!” and pleaded for US President Donald Trump to intervene.

The court process is “slimy, greasy Russian politics, nothing more, nothing less,” he told reporters.

The case has strained ties between Moscow and Washington and fuelled speculation of a prisoner swap.

Russia convicts ex-Marine after holding him for two years in jail

Whelan, 50, has been held in a Moscow jail since his arrest in December 2018 and his trial was held behind closed doors because of the accusations of seeking to obtain state secrets.

He had complained of being mistreated in prison and last month underwent an urgent hernia operation at a Moscow hospital.

Whelan’s conviction is another impediment in relations between the two world powers, which are at odds over Ukraine, Syria, Libya, arms control and a host of other issues.

Read more: Russian court to deliver verdict on US spy

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed the verdict and demanded that Russia release Whelan immediately.

He said the United States was outraged “after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defence witnesses”.

The US ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan condemned the trial as unfair and lacking transparency, saying he was “disappointed, outraged” by the verdict.

He said Whelan was “sentenced to 16 years in prison with no evidence that’s been produced.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” he added. “This is the direction this case has been heading from the beginning.”

Paul Whelan: James Bond or Mr. Bean?

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed allegations Whelan’s detention was political saying: “The charges brought against him were proven in court and accepted by the court.”

Throughout the hearings, Whelan insisted he was innocent, saying he was framed and comparing himself to the hapless comedy character Mr Bean.

“Russia thought they caught James Bond on a spy mission, in reality they abducted Mr Bean on holiday,” he said in October.

Whelan says he was detained on a visit to Moscow to attend a wedding when he took a USB drive from an acquaintance thinking it contained holiday photographs.

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Whelan, who also has British, Canadian and Irish passports, was sentenced to 16 years in a strict regime penal colony.

The prosecution had asked for 18 years, just short of the maximum 20-year term for the charge.

The prosecutor said last month Whelan tried to receive information that was a state secret and could harm Russia’s security, Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov told reporters.

The prosecutor claimed Whelan has the rank of an officer — “at least a colonel” — at the US defence intelligence agency, the lawyer said.

Whelan’s brother David said his family would continue to fight for his release.

“We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities,” he said.

Whelan was dishonourably discharged as a marine before working as head of global security at a US auto parts company.

There had been suggestions that Whelan could be returned to the US in a prisoner swap.

Russia convicts ex-Marine as US alleges judges are political

Whelan’s lawyer said Monday that Russian intelligence services were considering an exchange for two Russians detained in the United States, including pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, imprisoned on drug smuggling charges.

David Whelan has said that the family hoped a conviction would allow Russia and the United States to begin discussing Paul’s release immediately.

Read more: US trying to split Russia ahead of vote on new Constitution: Russian official

US diplomats and the former marine’s family have condemned Whelan’s treatment in detention, saying Russia ignored his medical condition and barred him from communicating with relatives.

The US embassy criticised the Russian authorities for waiting until his condition was “life-threatening to provide him medical attention”, while the Russian foreign ministry described his operation last month as “simple”.

US outraged at sentence

The United States expressed outrage Monday over a Russian court’s conviction of American Paul Whelan on espionage charges, saying he was deprived of a fair trial.

Whelan, a former Marine arrested in December 2018, was sentenced Monday to 16 years of hard labor after being found guilty of receiving classified information.

“The United States is outraged by the decision of a Russian court today to convict US citizen Paul Whelan after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“We demand Paul Whelan’s immediate release,” he said.

Read more: Coronavirus unites US & Russia yet nuclear arms divide them

Just days earlier, Pompeo had publicly called on Russia to release Whelan, who contends that he was on holiday in Russia when he was given a USB drive thinking it contained family photographs.

“The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo said Russian authorities “put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition.”

Whelan’s conviction is another impediment in relations between the two powers, which are at odds over Ukraine, Syria, Libya, arms control and a host of other issues.

President Donald Trump nonetheless recently said he hoped to invite his counterpart Vladimir Putin to the United States, welcoming him back into the elite club of the Group of Seven major industrial democracies, thereby ending Russia’s suspension over its annexation of Crimea after seizing it from Ukraine.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

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