Paul Whelan, the former Marine and brother of Island artist Elizabeth Whelan who was charged with espionage by the Russian Federation, has been convicted and sentenced to 16 years in a maximum-security prison colony.
Whelan was first arrested and charged with spying while attending a wedding in Russia in late December 2018, according to a statement from the Whelan family. The Michigan native was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), and held in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison.
Immediately following Whelan’s arrest, his family began to advocate for his release and exoneration, insisting that he was innocent of the charges levied against him.
According to Elizabeth Whelan, the outcome of the trial was not unexpected, but nonetheless difficult to comprehend. The prosecution in Whelan’s case had initially asked for an 18-year sentence, so Elizabeth said she wasn’t surprised with the 16-year term.
For the entire Whelan family, the conviction comes off as a blatant political ploy that Elizabeth said was never about having a fair and just trial.
“This has turned into a very tricky political situation,” Elizabeth said. “Although the Russian legal system resembles the legal system in America, it does not operate in the same way.”
Elizabeth said that many possible opportunities to prove Whelan’s innocence have been thwarted and suppressed by the Russian legal arm. She said that from the very outset, Whelan has not been given a fair chance to make his case.
“Many of the witnesses Paul had hoped to call weren’t allowed to appear and testify; pieces of evidence weren’t allowed to be presented in court. We were all expecting the worst and hoping for the best,” Elizabeth said.
One of the most difficult things Elizabeth said she deals with is knowing full well that her brother is innocent, but not being able to prove it in a Russian courtroom. “We know that Paul isn’t a spy, and the American government knows it too,” she said.
The Whelan family has had ongoing communications with politicians and members of the U.S. government — many have openly denounced the conviction, and demanded Whelan’s immediate release. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that he is “outraged” by Whelan’s conviction in a “secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses,” and called his treatment by Russian authorities “appalling.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) tweeted that Whelan’s trail was without evidence or due process, and called it “a mockery of justice at the hands of a corrupt regime run by war criminal Vladmir Putin.”
Elizabeth said the corruption of the Russian legal system has made Whelan a victim of a broken process, and she will never understand why he was pegged as a spy.
“We feel that we may never know the real reasons Paul was arrested in the first place. The Russian government has put on these theatrics with private hearings and interrogations,” Elizabeth said. “And it has all happened behind closed doors.”
In order to get Whelan released and back in the States, Elizabeth said, Russian authorities will use him as a bargaining chip, and seek to leverage the U.S. government to release Russians who are imprisoned here in America.
“It’s a major national security issue for countries to be able to nab American citizens and imprison them until that country gets some sort of concession,” Elizabeth said.
Many are advocating for President Donald Trump to urge the Russians to release Whelan, but Elizabeth said that might do more harm than good.
“Everybody wants Trump to call out Putin and demand that Paul come home, but the minute the president asks for that, the Russian Federation notices that they have our attention, and might urge him to come to the negotiating table,” Elizabeth said.
And the charge of espionage, which encompasses a broad range of criminal acts, Elizabeth called a “very convenient charge.”
She said that if someone is charged with spying, that trial and its proceedings can happen largely in the dark, with evidence and information being withheld from the public. Whelan’s legal team is currently working on an appeal to the conviction, which could surface in the coming weeks.
The Vineyard community has been involved in advocating for Whelan’s exoneration and release, and a GoFundMe account has been set up to pay for his legal expenses. So far, more than $20,000 has been raised out of the $100,000 fundraising goal. Money from the crowdfunding initiative will also go toward providing Whelan with toilet paper, toothpaste, and fresh fruit and vegetables, none of which is provided by the prison, according to the GoFundMe page.
There is also a Facebook page, Free Paul Whelan, and a website advocating for his release.
In an email statement from David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother, he stated that the conviction further proves the injustice that is embedded deep in the Russian legal system, including entrapment by a high-ranking FSB agent for self-gain.
“The court’s decision merely completes the final piece of this broken judicial process,” David wrote. “We had hoped that the court might show some independence, but in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities.”
David wrote that he will continue to work with members of Congress and the State Department to protect his brother’s human rights until he is released.