A Russian court has extended the detention of a former United States marine charged with espionage, to May 28, refusing a request that he be released under house arrest.
Paul Whelan, 48, is to be held in a pre-trial detention facility for a further three months to give investigators more time to look into his case, Judge Sergei Ryabtsev in Moscow’s Lefortovo District Court ruled on Friday.
Whelan, who holds US, British, Canadian and Irish passports, was taken into custody and held in a Moscow hotel room on December 28 on an allegation of possessing documents containing state secrets, a charge he denies. If found guilty, he could be imprisoned for up to 20 years.
Sitting in a cage in the courtroom, Whelan told journalists he is “holding up well”.
“I could do with care packages, food, things like that, letters from home,” he said before masked security officials cut him off.
His lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said after Friday’s hearing that the decision to keep Whelan under arrest was “absolutely illegal”.
Whelan’s defence denies any wrongdoing, saying the American was framed by an acquaintance who handed him a flash drive allegedly containing classified information.
Whelan, who lived in the US but was in Russia for a wedding, met the acquaintance in Moscow and was expecting to receive photos of a May trip to the Russian countryside, Zherebenkov said.
“We believe that this was a provocation and a crime by his acquaintance,” he said, adding that the acquaintance could have been motivated by “career considerations” or a reluctance to return money owed to Whelan.
He said the defence asked the judge to change his arrest conditions to house arrest in an apartment belonging to Zherebenkov, but the motion was denied.
Since his detention, Whelan has been visited by officials from the US, Canadian, Irish and British embassies.
The case has put further strain on already tense US-Russia relations as has that of another American, private equity chief Michael Calvey, also held in Russia.
The US embassy in Moscow said it was closely following the case, but could not provide any further information because Russian authorities had so far prevented Whelan from signing a privacy waiver.
“We are strongly concerned about the delay” in allowing him to sign the waiver, US embassy spokeswoman Andrea Kalan said. “Consular access without being able to do true consular support is not real access.”
Russia’s foreign ministry brushed off speculation that Whelan could be traded for Russian national Maria Butina, who confessed in the US in December to conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent.
Whelan was arrested two weeks after Butina confessed as part of a US plea deal.
“Exchanging Paul Whelan for someone held in custody abroad is out of the question at the current stage,” ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.