This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
News reports say Russian and U.S. officials are negotiating a possible swap of Paul Whelan, an American who was sentenced by a Moscow court this week for espionage, for two Russians serving lengthy sentences in U.S. prisons.
The Interfax news agency on June 17 cited an unnamed official as saying that the talks included Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko.
“If an agreement is reached, it’s most likely that a so-called exchange will be made after the U.S. president pardons the Russians and the Russian president pardons Whelan,” the official was quoted as saying.
Whelan, who was arrested in Moscow in December 2018, was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian penal colony after being found guilty of espionage on June 15. He denounced the trial as a sham.
The Interfax report was the latest suggestion that Russian officials see Whelan’s imprisonment as a bargaining chip to gain the release of Russians serving prison time in the United States.
Russian officials have for years called for the release of Bout, who was arrested and extradited from Thailand in 2008 on a U.S. warrant, and convicted by a U.S. jury three years later of weapons smuggling and other related charges. His notoriety as a gunrunner earned him the nickname Merchant of Death.
Yaroshenko, meanwhile, is serving a 20-year prison sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
After Whelan’s sentence was announced on June 15, defense lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said the verdict was expected because “no one was hiding” that Moscow was seeking the release of Russian prisoners held in the U.S.
That same day, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency as saying: “We’re sticking with the previous position and these options have been repeatedly offered to the Americans.”
‘A Humane Act’
Whelan’s brother, David, told RFE/RL that he also believed Moscow wants to exchange Paul for Bout, Yaroshenko, and others.
“The Russian Federation has made it clear for many years that they want Mr. Bout and Mr. Yaroshenko, among others, returned,” he said in an e-mail. “It is the Russian Federation’s reflexive approach to make justice transactional. That doesn’t mean anyone else wants their bargain.”
“The U.S. government has made it clear publicly that they are not interested in discussing an exchange,” Whelan said. “I would be astounded if, given their public statements, there was any consideration of a trade.”
He also said it was possible Russia was looking to reclaim several diplomatic properties that were shuttered by Washington in 2016 in response to findings that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election.
Tatyana Moskalkova, who is the Kremlin-appointed human rights commissioner, said on June 17 that she could not confirm the negotiations for a prisoner swap, but she told Interfax that “any exchange, any actions to bring Russian compatriots back to the homeland is a humane act.”
The 50-year-old Paul Whelan, who also holds British, Canadian, and Irish citizenship, is a former U.S Marine who was working as the head of global security for a U.S. auto parts supplier at the time of his arrest in the Russian capital in 2018. He said he was in Moscow to attend a friend’s wedding.
Russian prosecutors claimed that a flash drive found in Whelan’s possession contained classified information.
Whelan insists he was framed when he met an acquaintance at a Moscow hotel and took the flash drive from him, saying he was told it contained holiday photos. He says the allegations of spying against him are politically motivated.
He has also accused his Moscow prison guards of mistreatment.