Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants’ cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on Jan. 22. The timing of Whelan’s arrest has led to speculation that the Russians may be looking to try to exchange him for Mariia Butina. | Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
Family members of an ex-Marine being held in Russia on accusations of spying are lamenting the recent extension of his detention and expressing disappointment that members of Congress have not been more vocal about his case.
Paul Whelan, 48, was arrested in Moscow in December. Associates say he was there to attend a friend’s wedding, but the Russians have accused Whelan of soliciting and receiving a thumb drive containing data on employees of a Russian security agency.Story Continued Below
The timing of Whelan’s arrest has led to speculation in both Russian and American media accounts that the Russians may be looking to try to exchange Whelan for Mariia Butina, a Russian graduate student who pleaded guilty last year to acting as an unregistered agent for Russia as she courted American political groups like the National Rifle Association.
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Earlier this week, a judge delayed sentencing in Butina’s case another four weeks for reasons that were not publicly specified. The judge noted that the Russian — who has been jailed pending likely deportation — has likely already served about as long as she’s likely to be sentenced to in her case.
A lawyer retained by Whelan’s family, Ryan Fayhee, said that while Whelan’s supporters are eager for attention to his plight, they’re concerned that linking Butina’s case to his may make the public think he is a spy.
“We’re certainly not connecting the two of them. … It isn’t helpful,” Fayhee told POLITICO. “Paul Whelan is most definitely not a spy.”
Fayhee, a veteran of the export control section of Justice Department’s National Security Division, called “wildly unjust” the Russians’ refusal to comply with the normal procedure for consular access.
While a U.S. consular officer has been permitted to see Whelan and speak with him, the officer was not permitted to give him the legal paperwork needed to retain an independent lawyer. The Russians would also not let Whelan sign a Privacy Act waiver so that State Department officials could discuss his case publicly, the attorney said.
“Paul is being held without the minimum standards that would comport with his rights,” Fayhee said. “It’s very clear to use they’re keeping him isolated to encourage a confession of some sort.”
The family’s lawyer indicated he’s concerned that Whelan’s case is being ignored or downplayed in some quarters because of the political tensions between Democrats, Republicans and President Donald Trump over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and the allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“The guy clearly needs a champion on Capitol Hill,” Fayhee said of Whelan. “It’s been quite surprising that folks on the Hill, after the initial arrest, haven’t really stood up. … It’s frankly shocking to the family and should be shocking to everyone that no one had stood up to take up his charge. There is no political downside to speaking up.”
Fayhee did not elaborate on why Whelan could not be a spy, but experts have noted that while he served a couple of tours in Iraq, he received a bad-conduct discharge in 2008 related to forgery charges. Ex-CIA officers have said they doubt the agency would accept someone with that background as a spy or send them overseas. Whelan has also worked as a police officer and most recently as a corporate security consultant.
Earlier this week, a Russian court extended Whelan’s detention at the notorious former-KGB Lefortovo prison for another three months as authorities investigate and prepare their case.
Meanwhile, Butina also is in jail awaiting her next court date on March 28.
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