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Marine vet Paul Whelan transferred to Russian region known for toughest prisons

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.

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, sentenced to 16 years on espionage charges that he rejects, has been transferred to a penal colony in the region of Mordovia, historically known for Russia’s toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.

Whelan’s lawyer, Olga Karlova, told TASS news agency on August 4 that her client had left the Lefortovo detention center in Moscow and was currently being transferred to a Mordovian penal colony.

Karlova said she had received the information from Whelan’s brother David, who had been informed by the British Embassy.

Whelan holds U.S., Canadian, British, and Irish passports.

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Karlova added that Lefortovo officials refused to comment.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it was aware of the reports of Whelan’s transfer but had not yet received official notification.

“We continue to press Russian authorities for fair & humane treatment of #PaulWhelan, & regular contact with US consular officials,” Rebecca Ross, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy, said in an August 4 tweet.

Valery Krutov, chairman of the Mordovia branch of the Public Monitoring Commission rights group, said on August 4 that Whelan was expected to arrive at Correctional Colony No. 18 in Mordovia in the coming days. He will be transferred several days later to Correctional Colony No. 17 to serve his term.

Whelan’s relatives and lawyers said earlier that the ex-U.S. Marine will most likely be held in Lefortovo for a longer time, as it was expected that he may be exchanged for Russian nationals held in the United States in September.

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 notorious system of correctional colonies in Mordovia, established as part of the gulag system in the 1930s, is known as one of the toughest in the former Soviet Union.

Also, the process of transferring convicts in Russia can last for weeks. The process, known as “etap,” involves trains specially designed for convicts stopping in transit jails and prisons. Convicts traveling in such trains stay in crowded caged compartments with almost no access to fresh air, no shower, and limited access to the toilet and food for days or weeks.

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 materials and because of 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.

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 his 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.