‘Very grim existence’: Former US Marine Whelan speaks of life in Russian labor camp

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.

A former U.S. Marine convicted earlier this year by Russia as a spy has told the BBC of his “very, very grim existence” as he prepares to spend Christmas alongside murderers and thieves in a labor camp.

“I get up in the morning and try to be as positive as I can,” Paul Whelan told the BBC from Correctional Colony No. 17 in the region of Mordovia, some 350 kilometers east of Moscow.

The 50-year-old Whelan, giving his first detailed interview since his arrest in December 2018, said he was spending his days sewing prison uniforms in the camp “workhouse” and is taking “one day at a time” — not focusing on his 16-year sentence on espionage charges that he has always rejected.

Prison guards are waking him at night every two hours to take his photograph, he said.

Part of the camp has also been quarantined for a suspected coronavirus outbreak.

“I’m being patient and waiting. I’m not the only pebble on the beach, I know. But I also don’t want to be here too long,” Whelan said. “They’ve abducted a tourist. And I want to come home, see my family, and live my life.”

Whelan, who also holds British, Canadian, and Irish passports, is a former U.S. Marine who worked global security at a U.S.-based supplier of automotive parts and components.

He was arrested in Moscow and sentenced in June after prosecutors claimed that a flash memory stick found in his possession contained classified information.

Whelan has insisted he had come to Russia to attend a wedding and that he was framed when he took the memory stick from an acquaintance, thinking it contained holiday photos.

The United States has rejected the spy case as “outrageous.”

Whelan told the BBC that the entire “ludicrous” case against him was based on the testimony of a Russian friend.

“The story was that the [U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency] sent me to Moscow to pick up a flash drive with the names and photos of students from the border guard school,” Whelan said.

He had supposedly paid for the secret data by wire transfer four months earlier, but Whelan said that money was a loan so his friend could buy his wife a new phone.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) “just came up with a random story that doesn’t make any sense,” Whelan said, adding that no concrete evidence was ever presented.

The court hearings in Whelan’s case were closed, and defense lawyers here have to sign a nondisclosure agreement in spy trials.