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Marine vet Paul Whelan’s lawyers say he might be exchanged in September for Russians held in US

Paul Whelan imprisoned in Russia (U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Russia/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Lawyers for the former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was sentenced in Moscow to 16 years in prison on espionage charges in mid-June, say their client may be exchanged in September for Russian nationals held in the United States.

Vladimir Zherebenkov told the TASS news agency on June 20 that Whelan, who denies any wrongdoing, remains at the Lefortovo detention center in Moscow as talks proceed.

Whelan’s other lawyer, Olga Karlova, told Interfax that “certain sources” informed Whelan’s defense team that he may be exchanged in September, though “the information has not been confirmed.”

Karlova added that although the Moscow City Court formally informed the Lefortovo detention center’s administration last week that Whelan’s sentence had come into force, thus starting the process of defining in which correctional facility Whelan would start serving his term, her client will most likely stay in the detention center depending on “how successful the exchange talks are.”

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Reports in June said that Russian and U.S. officials were in talks on a possible swap of Whelan for two Russians — Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko — who are serving lengthy sentences in U.S. prisons.

The Moscow City Court convicted and sentenced Whelan to 16 years on June 15 after a trial that was held behind closed doors because the evidence included classified material, as well as due to measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The United States has called the proceedings a “mockery of justice” and demanded Whelan’s immediate release.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said he was deeply disappointed by the verdict and sentence against Whelan, who also holds British, Canadian, and Irish citizenships, and expressed “serious reservations about the legal process.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has rejected “claims about the unfairness and excessive harshness” of the sentence.

The 50-year-old Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018.

Russian prosecutors claimed that a flash memory stick found in Whelan’s possession contained classified information.

Whelan says he was framed when he took the memory stick from an acquaintance, thinking it contained holiday photos. He has also accused his prison guards of mistreatment.

Whelan was head of global security at a U.S. auto-parts supplier at the time of his arrest. He and his relatives insist he visited Russia to attend a wedding.

Before the verdict, U.S. officials had urged Moscow to release Whelan following their criticism of Russian authorities for their “shameful treatment” of him.