Pompeo Condemns Russia's Jail Sentence for Paul Whelan, Alleged U.S. Spy Putin Wants to Exchange for Drug Smuggler

The U.S. has condemned the "appalling" jail term for American citizen and ex-Marine Paul Whelan, convicted of spying in Russia and held there since late 2018.

Whelan, 50, holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports. He was arrested in December 2018 at a Moscow hotel where he was preparing to attend a wedding, accused of carrying a computer flash drive containing classified information.

On Monday, Whelan was sentenced to serve 16 years of hard labor in a Russian penal colony, prompting an angry response from the State Department.

A statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. is "outraged" by the conviction and sentence, which followed what Pompeo called "a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses."

"We have serious concerns that Mr. Whelan was deprived of the fair trial guarantees that Russia is required to provide him in accordance with its international human rights obligations," Pompeo added.

Whelan maintains that he was set up in a sting operation, having been handed the suspect flash drive by a Russian acquaintance. Whelan said he thought the drive contained holiday photos. He described his trial as "political theater" and standing inside a glass box in the courtroom held up a sign showing a series of statements including "sham trial" and "no human rights."

Pompeo said Whelan's treatment by the Russians "has been appalling. Russia failed to provide Mr. Whelan with a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal; and during his detention has put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition; and unconscionably kept him isolated from family and friends."

Pompeo ended the statement by demanding Whelan's "immediate release." Whelan's twin brother David, meanwhile, said the family hoped the sentencing would allow discussions on Whelan's release to begin immediately.

The tough sentence has revived the chances for the prisoner swap offered by Russia to secure Whelan's freedom. Last year, Moscow said it would free Whelan in exchange for the release of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, sentenced to 20 years behind bars in the U.S. for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the country.

Another Russian—arms trafficker Viktor Bout—may also be part of a prisoner swap deal, having been sentenced to 25 years in jail in the U.S., according to Whelan's lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov.

Zherebenkov told Russian news agency Interfax that "no one was hiding" the plan to use Whelan to free Russian prisoners in the U.S. "I also heard proposals on the sidelines of conducting an exchange instead of appealing," Zherebenkov said.

"Whether it'll be an exchange only for Bout or for Yaroshenko too, I don't know," he added, refusing to comment further and explaining, "I'm not allowed to say certain things."

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also mooted the idea of a prisoner swap, telling the state-run RIANovosti: "We're sticking with the previous position and these options have been repeatedly offered to the Americans."

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on Whelan's sentence, telling reporters, "We don't deal with these issues," according to Interfax. Peskov also dismissed any suggestion that Whelan is a "political hostage," saying the trial showed that this characterization was "impossible."

Paul Whelan, Russia, spy, sentence, Mike Pompeo
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, stands inside a defendants' cage as he waits to hear his verdict in Moscow, Russia on June 15, 2020. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images/Getty