CNN has confirmed that Paul Whelan, the US citizen arrested by Russia, has been formally charged with espionage. Whelan’s attorney, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told CNN that Whelan is being treated well and his mood and condition are good.
The New York Times reports that Zherebenkov, a high profile criminal defense attorney, said, “I was surprised to see him being so confident,” after spending most of Wednesday with his new client. According to the attorney, Mr. Whelan is being held in solitary confinement, which is standard operating procedure for a charge of espionage, at Lefortovo, a prison that is often used for suspects arrested by the FSB.
Zherebenkov, speaking about the possibility that his client could be traded back to the US for Maria Butina, the Russian gun advocate who was arrested in July and pleaded guilty in December to being a foreign agent, said the process would be a long one, the News York Times reports. It would take six months to a year for an exchange to be arranged and require a pardon from Vladimir Putin, but Zherebenkov welcomed the idea, saying, “This is a long process. I myself hope that we can rescue and bring home one Russian soul.”
Rosbalt, a Russian state news agency, quotes an anonymous intelligence source who says that Whelan was caught “red handed” in a Moscow hotel room trying to recruit a Russian friend “and use him as an agent to obtain information concerning the staff of various departments and services”. According to Rosbalt’s source, Paul Whelan was arrested minutes after receiving a USB device containing a “list of all employees of one of the secret departments”, the FSB breaking into the room and detaining the former US Marine.
Whelan faces up to 20 years in prison, if convicted of espionage. Maria Butina, on the other hand, faces six months in jail and deportation after her time is served, according to the Times.
Whelan’s family says Paul was in Russia to attend the wedding of a former Marine and friend who was marrying a Russian woman and is innocent of the charges. Zherebenkov says that he has not yet seen evidence to the contrary and he believes Whelan is innocent of the charges. The attorney added that he has asked the court to release Whelan on bail, according to CNN.
The New York Times reports that Paul Whelan had an account on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, with 70 friends. Per the Times, Paul posted occasionally, remarking on Russian holidays and commenting on US politics. In 2014, he responded to Russia invading Crimea by saying, “Putin can have Alaska, as long as he takes Sarah Palin, too!” On the day President Trump was inaugurated, Whelan wrote, between American flag emjois, “GOD SAVE PRESIDENT TRUMP”.
He also posted personal information, such as saying good bye to his cat Mittens when the pet died in August.
Whelan is accused of cultivating his Russian friends on Vkontakte to gather information by investing in their personal lives and “pretending” to “hang out” with them when he visited Russia. Rosbalt’s intelligence source said that it was unusual that Whelan did not try to meet “pretty Russian women”, preferring to drink with men, while processing information that may have been useful to US intelligence agencies.
The Kremlin, via Rosbalt’s intelligence source, further postulates that it could “not be ruled out” that Whelan’s bad conduct discharge was done to create a “legend” and that he then received “special training” after being “expelled” from the Marines, wound up in a company with branches around the world, and went to BorgWarner able to speak conversational Russian and having established “strong contacts” with Russian citizens on social media.
John Huntsman Jr, US ambassador to Russia, met with Whelan on Wednesday, five days after his arrest. According to CNN, a State Department official says that Hunstman has been in contact with Mr. Whelan’s family via phone after visiting him at Lefortovo.