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Russia finds ex-U.S. Marine Paul Whelan guilty of espionage, sentences him to 16 years in prison

Michigan man sentenced in Russia spy case
American Paul Whelan convicted of espionage in Russia and sentenced to 16 years in prison 02:10

Moscow — A Russian court found former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan guilty of espionage on Monday and sentenced him to 16 years in prison. For his family, it was a predictable conclusion to the high-profile spy case that has been yet another strain on relations between Moscow and Washington. The U.S. Ambassador to Russia has ridiculed the verdict as a "mockery of justice."

Whelan, 50, was arrested at Moscow's Metropol Hotel in December 2018. Investigators claim he was caught red-handed after receiving a USB drive containing classified information.

The American, who also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenship, has maintained throughout the trial that he was framed by an agent from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), who gave him the drive. He pleaded not guilty during the trial and insisted he was not an American spy.

Verdict hearing of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, in Moscow
Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, holds a sign as he stands inside a defendants' cage during his verdict hearing in Moscow, Russia, June 15, 2020. MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS

"This is all political theater," Whelan said from inside a plexi-glass defendant's box in the courtroom on Monday. He noted that he hadn't even understood the verdict when it was read, as all the proceedings were held in Russian. He pushed a hand-written note up against the front of the box reading: "sham trial" at the top, along with other remarks mocking the proceedings. On it he also asked President Donald Trump to
take "decisive action."

In a message released later Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. government was "outraged by the decision" of the Russian court. He said Whelan had been convicted in a "secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses."

"We have serious concerns that Mr. Whelan was deprived of the fair trial guarantees that Russia is required to provide him in accordance with its international human rights obligations. The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling," said the top U.S. diplomat, reiterating the Trump administration's long-standing demand for Whelan's immediate release.  

To appeal, or to deal

Whelan's family had expressed hope that the end of the trial might mean the U.S. could push harder for his return from Russia.

"We hope that the U.S. government and the Russian Federation will begin discussing Paul's release immediately, now that there will no longer be any procedural impediments," Whelan's brother David said in a statement emailed to CBS News last week.

In a new statement, released immediately after the sentencing on Monday, David Whelan said the family expected his brother's legal team to appeal the verdict within a couple weeks. Paul Whelan's Russian lawyer, however, suggested a deal between the U.S. and Russia could be another option.

Defense lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said his team was preparing documents for a possible appeal, but that a meeting was expected with Whelan on June, 22 and they would make a decision after that on whether to file the appeal. Their thinking was that Whelan could be pardoned or included in a potential prisoner exchange between the two nations. Zherebenkov said the decision would have to be discussed at the highest levels of government.  

Whelan himself dismissed the verdict as political, and said he would appeal it. Under Russian law, if the verdict is not appealed, it comes into force 10 days from Monday. If it is formally appealed, the sentence would only come into force if the verdict is upheld by an appellate court.

In the meantime, Whelan will be held at the Lefortovo prison's pre-trial detention center.

Prosecutors had sought an 18-year prison sentence in the case, and the charges carried a possible maximum sentence of 20 years.  

"Mockery of justice"

"It was the Russian legal system that was found guilty of injustice" David Whelan said in his family's statement Monday. "The court's decision merely completes the final piece of this broken judicial process.  We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities."

Speaking outside the court, U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan said he was "disappointed and outraged" by the outcome of the trial, but added: "I can't say I'm surprised." He called the trial "a mockery of justice," insisted no evidence had been presented in court and said Whelan was denied the opportunity to defend himself properly, or even to communicate with his family.

Verdict hearing of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, in Moscow
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan stands outside the verdict hearing of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, in Moscow, Russia June 15, 2020. MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS

In a tweet sent by the U.S. Embassy's spokesperson, Ambassador Sullivan had previously criticized Russia for the "secret trial." 

"Fair and transparent? No. Evidence produced? No. The world is watching," the ambassador said.

On Monday Sullivan said he would next "consult with my government in Washington, which, as I said, at the highest levels is extremely concerned."

"This is not going to have a good impact on our relationship," Sullivan added about Washington-Moscow ties, which have been strained for years over Moscow's alleged interference in U.S. democracy, the war in Syria, and a host of other issues.

At the time of his arrest, Whelan was the director of global security for Michigan-based auto parts supplier BorgWarner. Before that he spent 14 years in the U.S. Marine Corps before being discharged in 2008 for bad conduct, according to the military. He served in Iraq for several months in 2004 and 2006.

A file photo shows Paul Whelan during his service in the U.S. Marine Corps

While most of the charges against the American remained sealed, Russian media reports said Whelan stood accused of trying to recruit a long-time Russian acquaintance to gain a list of names of employees of a Russian security agency. All of the hearings in the trial before the reading of Monday's verdict were held behind closed doors, under strict restrictions implemented to control the spread of the coronavirus in Moscow.

U.S. intelligence and State Department sources had told CBS News previously that they were confident Whelan wasn't a spy.

Whelan had visited Russia several times before his arrest in 2018. Last month he underwent an emergency hernia surgery at a Moscow hospital.

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