Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, sentenced in June in Russia to 16 years on espionage charges that he rejects, says his arrest and subsequent trial was in retaliation for sanctions that the United States imposed on Russia and that he could be used as a bargaining chip in a prisoner exchange.
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 his 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, a region historically known as the location of some of Russia’s toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.
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 U.S. television station ABC he didn’t know why he was targeted.
“I don’t know why my name was chosen,” he said.
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.
“I think this was partly sanctions retaliation,” he said.
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 Federal Security Service (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.
“The night I was arrested, they asked me if I knew who those two people were,” Whelan said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in August 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 were currently under way. Whelan told ABC News he understood it’s difficult for the U.S. government to exchange him — an American tourist taken hostage — for two criminals. Still, he said that he remained optimistic.
“I don’t think I’ll be here that long — the governments will work it out quickly,” Whelan said. “I think it’s a bit of an embarrassment for the Russian government because they’ve by now figured out that they’ve made a mistake. Like I said, you know, I’m like [comic character] Mr. Bean being abducted on holiday. I don’t think this is a situation they want going longer than it needs to.”
Whelan confirmed to ABC News that he had been woken up at approximately two-hour intervals every night over the past few weeks. He said the practice apparently started because someone in the Russian prison system deemed him a flight risk.
However, he said that overall he had been treated reasonably well and was getting along with his cellmates, who understand his conviction is politically motivated.
“Everybody knows that it’s complete crap, and they laugh and say” ‘Well, yeah, this is what the FSB does. It’s obviously political,'” he said.