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Cold and crowded: US Marine vet jailed in Russia complains about poor conditions

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 in June in Russia to 16 years on espionage charges that he rejects, has complained to his family members about the conditions at the prison where he is incarcerated.

The 50-year-old Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and sentenced on June 15 after prosecutors claimed that a flash memory stick found in Whelan’s possession contained classified information.

He is serving his sentence at Correctional Colony No. 17 in the region of Mordovia, some 350 kilometers east of Moscow, in a region historically known as the location of some of Russia’s toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.

In an interview with Interfax published on December 16, David Whelan said his brother had complained during a phone call that the detention facility was “practically unheated” and that the temperature in the barracks was 5 degrees Celsius.

David Whelan quoted his brother as saying he is woken up at approximately two-hour intervals every night despite lodging complaints with the prison warden.

David Whelan also said his brother had indicated that there was an outbreak of illness at the prison, “although the prison has not clarified what it is.”

“The prison has barracks for inmates, and one is now housing the sick inmates,” he said. “The displaced prisoners are being housed in the remaining barracks, leading to overcrowding. While prisoners have masks, they are not always worn correctly and there are no other preventative steps being taken” to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

David Whelan said he hopes that the U.S. government continues to make efforts to secure the release of his brother even during the transition to the administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

The United States has demanded Whelan’s immediate release, calling his treatment and conviction “appalling.”

Whelan, who has rejected the espionage charges and insists he had come to Russia to attend a wedding, says he was framed when he took the memory stick from an acquaintance thinking it contained holiday photos.

In his first extensive interview since his arrest, Whelan told the U.S. television network ABC in November that he didn’t know why he was targeted.

But he said he believed his arrest could be linked to his job as a global security executive for auto parts supplier BorgWarner and its business with Russian truck manufacturer KamAZ, partly owned by Russian state defense conglomerate Rostec, which is under U.S. sanctions.

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

Whelan said FSB officers immediately mentioned both Bout and Yaroshenko to him after his arrest and that it was soon made clear Russia hoped for a trade.

On December 16, Interfax quoted Whelan’s lawyer, Konstantin Zherebenkov, as saying that a prisoner swap involving Whelan, Bout, and Yaroshenko was “possible.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in August that the issue of Whelan’s exchange for Russian citizens had not yet been discussed with U.S. officials.

Whelan’s family also said that no negotiations are currently under way. Whelan told ABC that he understands it’s difficult for the U.S. government to exchange him — an American tourist taken hostage — for two criminals. Still, he said he remains optimistic.