Accused U.S. Spy Paul Whelan Turns 49 in Moscow Prison With Freedom Nowhere in Sight


MOSCOW—Paul Whelan turned 49 in Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo prison today, Tuesday, with no sign he will be released soon and the possibility he won’t be freed for another 20 years.

Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who also has British, Canadian and Irish passports, was arrested on December 28 in his room at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow by Russian Federal Security, the FSB, and charged with espionage.

Paul’s twin brother, David Whelan, is marking their mutual birthday thousands of miles away in Ontario, Canada, and it’s heartbreaking moment for David. He can’t even speak to his twin on the phone.

“I think about Paul every day.  I wonder about what he thinks about his situation, and how much he must miss my parents,” David told The Daily Beast. “I hope he doesn't know how he appears to be practically abandoned by governments who should be seeking his freedom.”

Whelan’s family had a long history of trips to Russia, a country they discovered after the collapse of the Soviet Empire and quickly learned to love. In fact, David was the first of the two brothers to visit Russia, in 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Today I am surprised at the Russian legal system's lack of independent checks, which would give us confidence that the judge is actually considering Paul's defense,” David said. “It certainly isn't the country I would have expected to emerge after seeing Russia in the early 1990s.”

David, an information specialist, finds it tragic that his brother is behind bars in the country he thought gained its freedom in the days of Perestroika.

“No matter how hard diplomats try, Paul is blocked from any communication in prison. The FSB do not allow us to pass him letters,” David said.

From the first days of Paul Whelan’s arrest, Russian experts predicted that the “American hostage” eventually would be swapped for some high profile Russian prisoner in United States, most likely NRA fan-girl and spy Maria Butina or merchant of death Victor Bout.

But it would be an unevent trade, because David Whelan is not a spy, his brother says. He is merely a victim of others’ intrigues.

“Paul’s  arrest and imprisonment is clearly designed by some Russian authority—whether the government or some part of the security apparatus —to extract benefits in the future. There is no other logic for his continued detention,” David said.

Both brothers were fascinated by Russia, its culture, its history. Paul has visited at least seven times since 2006, his brother said. He made friends and even brought his parents to Moscow in 2009. Together they visited Russia’s major monastery, Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, in the town of Sergiyev Posad outside of Moscow. They took a photo of Paul there that David shared with The Daily Beast.

Last year Paul went back to the monastery with a few of his Russian friends. That trip turned out to be fateful.

“The friend he traveled with seems to have been the person who allegedly gave him the USB drive on which he expected to find photos,” David Whelan told The Daily Beast.

The identity of the “friend” is protected by the court, but FSB investigators claim that the memory stick given to Whelan contained “state secret” information.

A source close to the FSB told reporters from Russian independent Rain TV that Whelan searched for soldiers from a state military college, hoping to make contact, but just to hang out together.

Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, is angry with the FSB for not letting him see his client today.

“This is not a civilized country, I cannot see my client on his birthday, I can only visit him once every two weeks.” Zherebenkov sounded annoyed on the phone. “Every time I show up, they tell me that five or six FSB investigators have taken all the meeting rooms in prison. So, they should open more rooms! This is insane. This can happen only in Russia!”

Last month Zherebenkov failed to get Whelan out on bail. “If the court does not let Paul stay under house arrest, at least they could allow us provide the client with a proper defense.”

Zherebenkov said that so far the investigators have not presented him with any evidence to prove that his client is a spy.

“This case was ordered by somebody. The FSB have no evidence. Otherwise they would not have delayed our meetings for weeks.”

“I know what an ordered arrest means,” said Zherebenkov, revealing a hitherto unmentioned part of his personal history. “I spent more than four years in prison myself on false accusations. Believe me, most of my cases are ordered, falsified cases and I am good at winning them,” he added with optimism.

In Ontario, David Whelan is pushing to get some answers from lawyers and diplomats. His other brother, sister and parents are helping him to create an extensive network in the U.S. and United Kingdom. The family has no money to hire a lawyer experienced in espionage cases, David told The Daily Beast, so they have started a crowdfunding campaign to pay for Paul’s prison fees.

On their birthday on Tuesday, Paul Whelan’s twin brother said hope is fading that he will see his brother any time soon.

“I must admit, I'm losing faith that the Russian court will agree with Paul's defense lawyers and realize the FSB made a substantial blunder,” David said. “The judge so far has been willing to give the FSB whatever it asks for.”

“We believe only diplomatic solutions will free Paul from his wrongful detention,“ David said.

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