Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(MOSCOW) — Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine arrested in Moscow on espionage charges, says he is the victim of a setup by Russia’s security services, the American’s lawyer said on Thursday.
Whelan was detained in Moscow in late December by Russia’s domestic intelligence agency and accused of unspecified “spying activity.” On Thursday, Whelan appeared again in a Moscow court, which rejected his appeal to be released on bail.
Russia has not provided any details on the spying charges against Whelan, but his lawyer has previously said he is accused of receiving “state secrets” on a memory card given to him by a Russian acquaintance during his trip in December. The lawyer has said Whelan, though, had not known what he was receiving — believing he was being given holiday photographs.
On Thursday, for the first time, Whelan’s lawyer accused the Russian friend of taking part in a sting operation against Whelan intended to frame him.
“I believe that it was a joint provocation from the side of his acquaintance and Russia’s security services,” attorney Vladimir Zherebenkov told ABC News outside a courtroom where Whelan’s appeal hearing was taking place.
Investigators, Zherebenkov said, also now accuse Whelan of spying in the “interests of the U.S.”.
Almost since the moment of his arrest, there has been speculation that Whelan could have been framed, with former U.S. officials suggesting the case resembled classic KGB setups. His family has insisted the charges against Whelan, a security director for the Michigan car parts supplier, BorgWarner, cannot be true and have recently accused Russia of taking him hostage for political reasons.
Zherebenkov’s comments on Friday provided the first detailed account of Whelan’s version of events.
According to Zherebenkov, Whelan had known the friend for several years and in early 2018 the two had spent a few days relaxing in the countryside outside Moscow. During the trip to an area called Zagorsk, the two barbecued and went to a sauna, Zherebenkov said.
When Whelan traveled again in December to Moscow, where his family have said that he was attending a wedding, he asked the Russian friend to bring him photographs of the spring trip.
He invited the friend to bring the pictures to his hotel room in the upscale Metropol hotel. Instead, Zherebenkov said, the friend deliberately brought a memory card that contained the “state secrets”.
Zherebenkov said that about five minutes later, before Whelan even had chance to see what was on the memory card, agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) burst into the hotel room and arrested him.
Zherebenkov said the secrecy laws prohibited him from naming the Russian acquaintance, but he said that he had “connections to the security services.” The lawyer said that the friend may have tapped Whelan in the hope of “advancing his career.” Zherebenkov also claimed that the friend owed Whelan money.
“It’s clearly a provocation,” Zherebenkov said. “Paul claims that and the investigation for now cannot refute that. In the words of Paul, it is a fantasy of the FSB.”
Whelan appeared in court on Thursday, marking only the third time he has been seen publicly since his arrest. He was brought in to court by a masked officer and held in a glass cage, while the judge read out his order rejecting Whelan’s appeal.
Whelan told reporters in the courtroom that he was not allowed to comment on the case, but he indicated that he believed he was being treated unjustly. Asked if he had been set up, Whelan replied “What do you think?” and gestured towards his lawyer. “Do you know what prison I am being held in?”
Unlike the previous hearings, Whelan was visibly agitated and clearly frustrated. At one point he angrily asked the judge where his translator was, so he could understand the ruling.
“You see how they do things?” Whelan asked reporters.
Speculation that Whelan could have been seized as a hostage emerged quickly after his arrest, with some former U.S. officials suggesting that he could have been taken as leverage in retaliation for the detention of Maria Butina, the Russian gun rights activist who pleaded guilty in the U.S. in December to acting as an illegal agent on behalf of Russia.
Whelan holds British, Canadian, Irish and U.S. passports.
Officials in Britain and Canada have expressed fears that Russia may have taken him as a diplomatic pawn. U.S officials have called on Russia to provide details about the charges against him.
The Kremlin has rejected the suggestion that Whelan’s case is political and has denied that it is seeking any prisoner exchange.
Whelan is being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, a notorious former KGB jail used to hold accused spies, dissidents and other high-profile prisoners.
Whelan’s family has accused the FSB of isolating him there. U.S. diplomats have yet to be able to have Whelan sign a privacy waiver, a standard form that would allow them to discuss his case with his family.
Andrea Kalan, the U.S. embassy spokeswoman, wrote on Twitter last week that the U.S. State Department is “strongly concerned” that Russian authorities were preventing Whelan from signing the waver.
U.S. diplomats were due to visit Whelan again on Friday, his family said in a statement.
In court, Whelan said he was not able to see any news and was being prevented from communicating with anyone.
“I’m not allowed to talk with anyone,” Whelan told reporters.
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