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American veteran arrested on spy charges in Russia lashes out

This undated file photo provided by the Whelan family shows Paul Whelan in Iceland.

COURTESY OF THE WHELAN FAMILY/AP

By AMIE FERRIS-ROTMAN | The Washington Post | Published: March 14, 2019

MOSCOW — Paul Whelan, an American citizen imprisoned in Russia on spy charges, sharply criticized Russia's handling of his case on Thursday, and suggested he was being poorly treated at the Moscow prison where he has spent the past three months.

"This is a kangaroo court," a heated Whelan, 49, told reporters from a glass enclosure in a Moscow court, where a judge upheld an earlier decision to keep the Marine veteran behind bars through late May.

Since members of Russia's security services, the FSB, seized Whelan in his Moscow hotel room in late December, charging him with espionage shortly after, there have been no formal or public statements explaining what crime the Michigan resident is committed of doing.

There are fears he is being interrogated. A citizen of four countries — Ireland, Canada and Britain, in addition to the United States — Whelan receives consular visits, but they are heavily restricted.

Earlier this week the U.S. Embassy in Moscow called on the Russian government to allow its consular officials unrestricted visits, so his case can be discussed "freely and without obstruction from Russian authorities."

Whelan's family say the investigator in the case is preventing his signed privacy act waiver from reaching U.S. officials. The embassy also says Whelan has been denied the power of attorney, despite the correct documentation being provided to prison officials.

"It seems fairly clear, although of course we don't know, that [Paul] is being purposely isolated so that some sort of confession can be contrived and the Russians can save face," Ryan Fayhee, a former Justice Department lawyer working pro bono for the Whelan family, told The Washington Post.

Statements from Whelan's Russian lawyer, whom Fayhee says was appointed by the FSB, only seem to add to the obfuscation. Vladimir Zherebenkov said on Thursday that his client had been set up by a member of the FSB when he was unwittingly handed a flash drive containing "state secrets".

"He was framed," Zherebenkov told reporters outside the courtroom.

Fayhee said Zherebenkov is clearly not acting in Whelan's interest. "This is what is obvious, and troubling to the family."

"The Russians need to tell us what he did, what specifically happened. Otherwise, it's unlawful," Fayhee added.

Though President Trump has yet to comment on Whelan's detention, and the response from the State Department has been minimal, there is a growing chorus of discontent in Congress. The House of Foreign Affairs Committee has called Whelan's detention "a blatant disregard of international law."

Visibly vexed, Whelan paced back and forth while the judge delivered his decision, before interrupting the Russian-language ruling to say, in a raised voice, "I don't even have a translator!"

Zherebenkov speaks no English, but fellow defense lawyer Olga Karlova hurried over to relay the judge's words.

Dressed in a blue sweater over a blue-and-white checkered shirt, Whelan looked composed, yet glum. When asked if he had access to any English-language reading material, he mouthed "none."

On March 5 Whelan turned 49 in his cell at the notorious Lefortovo prison on the outskirts of Moscow. None of his family's 100-plus pieces of mail, including birthday cards, have reached Whelan.

"No one in prison knew it was my birthday. There was no cake, no nothing," Whelan said.

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