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Russia seeks prisoner exchange with US, but won’t include detained American Paul Whelan

Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia, listens to his lawyers while standing inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on Jan. 22, 2019. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called on the U.S. this week to free Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko from prison in exchange for Americans it is holding, Interfax news service reported.

But Ryabkov stopped short of saying Russia would be willing to release Paul Whelan — a Michigan man who was arrested in December and charged with espionage — as part of the trade.

Ryabkov told the RIA news agency that it wouldn’t be right to include Whelan in a prisoner swap with the U.S. because Whelan has not yet been convicted in the Russian court system.

Whelan’s detention has continued for more than six months as Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, investigators look for evidence the former U.S. Marine was spying during his trip to the country late last year.

The State Department declined to comment Tuesday on Ryabkov’s offer, which was made Monday.

“The U.S. government continues to closely follow all cases of imprisoned U.S. citizens in Russia,” a State Department spokeswoman told the Detroit Free Press in an email. “We do not read out our private diplomatic discussions.”

Yaroshenko was arrested in 2010 by U.S. special forces in Liberia and later convicted of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States. He was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and is serving time in a low-security correctional facility in Danbury, Conn.

His release has been long-sought by Russian authorities.

Tatiana Moskalkova, the Russian Federation’s high commissioner for human rights, sent a letter to President Donald Trump in 2017 asking for a pardon for Yaroshenko. It was denied.

The news comes as U.S. officials grow increasingly concerned about Whelan’s health in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. The 49-year-old global security director for Auburn Hills-based auto supplier BorgWarner has not been seen by an independent doctor, said Andrea Kalan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, in a tweet.

His condition, she said, is worsening.

Whelan’s family has declined to share details about his health condition out of concern for his privacy. But his twin brother, David Whelan, said the Russian prison doesn’t offer much beyond basic first aid and emergency medical care.

“And they appear only be able to provide it in the Russian language,” David Whelan said. “Like many people in their late 40s, Paul has health concerns that need professional attention, to avoid them becoming emergencies. The Russian Foreign Ministry rejection of the U.S. government request that an English-speaking physician be allowed to examine Paul is disappointing.”

A State Department spokeswoman said the agency is continuing to press for “fair and humane treatment, due process, and access to appropriate medical care. We take allegations of mistreatment seriously, and will continue to raise Mr. Whelan’s case at every opportunity. The Department has no higher priority than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad. We urge the Russian government to guarantee a fair and transparent judicial process without undue delay, in accordance with its international legal obligations.”

Whelan, who lives in Novi, northwest of Detroit, denies he is a spy and has told reporters during court appearances that he is a victim of political kidnapping.

At a detention hearing in late June, Whelan asked Trump to intervene on his behalf.

Although Trump has yet to make a statement (or tweet) about Whelan, others in his administration — most recently U.S. national security adviser John Bolton — have spoken out against the continued detention of an American citizen without evidence from the Russian government to support its claims of espionage.

The Russian Federal Security Service alleges Whelan was caught in possession of a flash drive containing classified information at his hotel in Moscow. Whelan has told his lawyers that the flash drive came from a Russian friend, and that he was under the impression that it contained photos of the friend’s hometown.

He will continue to be held in a Moscow prison at least until his next court hearing at the end of August, his lawyers have said. A trial date has not yet been set in his case.

David Whelan said Tuesday that the family has not discussed with U.S. officials the possibility of a prisoner swap.

“We haven’t spoken with the U.S. government about swaps or sanctions, or any other tool of diplomacy they might use to bring Paul home,” he wrote in an email to the Free Press. “We are leaving it up to the professional diplomats to work out the tool and the timing. Hopefully it will be sooner than later.”


© 2019 Detroit Free Press

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