Paul Whelan convicted on espionage charges

Family says they will continue to fight for his return to America.

Paul Whelan, a former Marine and brother to Island artist Elizabeth Whelan, has been convicted of being a spy. His family and U.S. officials are outraged by the decision. — Courtesy Elizabeth Whelan

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. 


  1. Whelan will get traded for Russians held by the US so he will never serve the 16 years. However useful research shows that Whelan has had some serious problems in the past.

    • Andrew- so happy to see you have returned to offer your predictions about the future.
      You have such a good track record .
      Where’s my money ?

  2. It is hard to believe that an ex-Marine would ever lie.
    Even he were a spy.
    Which he isn’t.
    He said so.

  3. ajay, there are NO ex-Marines unless they were `Dishonorably Discharged`.
    “Once a Marine Always a Marine”.

    • Now I am confused, is guy this still a Marine?
      Or is he an ex-Marine?
      “He received a bad conduct discharge from the Marine Corps.”

  4. When it comes to the USA calling out Russia for putative illegal detention as a spy, it is, unfortunately, the kettle calling the pot black.
    The USA is currently colluding with the UK in the illegal detention and torturing (per Niels Meltzer, the UN rapporteur for torture) of the journalist and publisher Julian Assange. Furthremore, Assange’s human rights are being violated, as he obviously needs medical attention.
    When I hear “Free Julian Assange” I will say “Free Paul Whelan.”

    • Correction, once you take the uniform off you are just another citizen, maybe no better, maybe no worse.
      Retired, former, honorable, dishonorable, in jail for rape or murder, it is all the same.
      If you were in the Marine Corp and have seperated, for any reason, you are in fact an ex-Marine or if you prefer an Ex-Marine.
      It is a simple matter of language, not loyalty.

    • Do you still think of him as your ‘Brother’?

      Paul Nicholas Whelan (born March 5, 1970)[2] is a Canadian-born American resident[3] corporate security director. He received a bad conduct discharge from the Marine Corps.

  5. Per Wiki, Whelan did not attend the wedding, but instead bailed out of the event to meet with an FSB agent and have a thumb drive passed to him. Maybe Whelan thought the FSB guy was working for the US.
    There is more to this story than meets the eye. Whelan certainly behaved in a suspicious manner, and he has an odd CV. What’s with all the passports?

  6. I am appalled that the MV Times would construct such a headline, “Paul Whelan convicted on espionage charges.”, thereby creating some sort of equivalency to convictions in other jurisdictions which do maintain the rule of law.
    There have been many espionage convictions in this country, with no requirement to install a qualifier that Due Process was absent. However here, Lucas Thors then goes on to source extensively the unfairness of Paul’s trial in a Moscow courtroom. By any standards, American or Russian, it was a sham trial, intended to lay the foundations for the Russian government to create leverage, to propose an exchange to get their citizens back currently being held by the American government. For the MV Times create this equivalency was surely unintentional. Wouldn’t, “Paul Whelan convicted in sham Moscow trial” be a little more accurate?

  7. Island Raised, you are wrong. Paul did not ‘ditch the wedding, he was set up and arrested by FSB agents before the wedding. If you are going to publicly disparage my brother, at least get your facts straight. That Wiki article is suspiciously selective and contains numerous fallacies. I have to wonder who is updating it so very diligently.

    I have spent the past 18 months dealing with online trolls of every sort and find it interesting that there are some folks hell-bent on concocting a narrative that bolsters the Kremlin’s negotiating position, whether it be via a wiki page, or here in the MV Times comments section.

    James Kozak, thank you for that alternate headline suggestion and for elaborating on that point. Many people in the US do not realize that Russia has a legal system but it is not, by any stretch, a justice system.

    I am hopeful that the end of the farce of an investigation and trial will bring us closer to Paul’s release and I will continue to advocate for him while his detention continues. Thank you to everyone in the MV community and beyond who is showing support for Paul and helping our efforts.

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