Family handout(MOSCOW) — The Russian lawyer for Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine held on espionage charges in Russia, has said Whelan had materials considered “state secrets” on him when he was detained by Russian intelligence officers, but said he had been given them without his knowledge.
Whelan appeared in a Moscow court on Tuesday for a pretrial bail hearing, the first time he has been seen publicly since he was arrested in late December.
Following the hearing, Whelan’s court-appointed lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told reporters that during Whelan’s arrest a flash drive with “state secrets” had been found on him. The lawyer, however, said that Whelan had been unaware the classified material was on it, saying he had thought it only contained holiday photos and tourism-related files.
“The one thing that I can confirm is there there was information constituting state secrets,” Zherebenkov said. “In reality, Paul should have received from an individual information which is not a state secret — it’s cultural things, a visit to one church. That is Paul’s holiday, photos,” Zherebenkov said.
The lawyer said Whelan had been given the files by an individual but refused to say who. Officers from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Whelan in his hotel room with the classified material, Zherebenkov said.
It not clear if Whelan himself accepts his lawyer’s position that he was found with classified information.
The version described by Zherebenkov immediately raised the question of whether Whelan could have been set up. But the lawyer refused to say Whelan could have been framed and declined to explain how the files Whelan had been expecting could have been replaced or why a person would have wanted to give him unsolicited classified files.
“I am not using the word ‘setup’,” Zherebenkov said. He also categorically rejected a suggestion that Whelan’s case could be politically-motivated. “Absolutely not,” he told reporters.
The lawyer’s comments were the first formal description of what Whelan is accused of in a case where Russia has so far provided no details of the charges against him. Zherebenkov has previously said Whelan intends to plead not guilty.
His comments, though, recalled anonymous allegations that appeared on a Russian news site known for its ties to Russian security services about a week after Whelan was detained. The site, Rosbalt, cited an anonymous security services source who said Whelan had been arrested in his hotel room minutes after receiving a memory card with a classified list of Russian operatives on it. The site’s source claimed a Russian acquaintance of Whelan’s had delivered the card to him.
There has been no official comment on the Rosbalt reports. Russia’s FSB, which arrested Whelan, said in a statement announcing his detention only that he had been caught while conducting “spying activity.”
Last week, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said at a press conference that Whelan had been caught “red-handed” while conducting “concrete illegal activities,” but did not elaborate.
Whelan’s family has denied he is a spy, and said that the Russian charges against him are impossible. Whelan’s twin brother, David, has said that Whelan was in Russia for the wedding of an old friend. Whelan had previously travelled to Russia, for which he appeared to have acquired an enthusiasm, making some efforts to learn the language and also writing to ordinary Russians on social media.
Zherebenkov said Tuesday that confidentiality rules prevented him from describing exactly what Whelan is alleged to have received. He said the prosecution would have to prove Whelan had sought to receive classified information.
Asked why someone would have tried to give Whelan classified information without his knowledge, Zherebenkov suggested it could be “a mistake.” Before more evidence is produced, the lawyer said, it was impossible to say what had happened.
Some former U.S. intelligence officials had previously suggested that Whelan could have been set up, noting his former military background and frequent trips to Russia would have made him an attractive target for Russia looking to scoop up someone they could frame as a spy.
“He definitely has things about him that make the trumped-up charges against him more palatable, certainly to Russians and probably to some Americans as well,” Steven Hall, a former CIA station chief in Moscow told ABC News two weeks ago.
Daniel Hoffman, another former CIA officer, told NPR shortly after Whelan’s arrest at the beginning of January, that “this has all the hallmarks of a Russian KGB-style setup.”
The court on Tuesday rejected a request for Whelan to be released on bail and ruled Whelan would remain in pretrial detention at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, setting his next hearing for Feb. 28.
Whelan has been held in Lefortovo since he was arrested on Dec. 28 in his hotel room at the upscale Metropol Hotel close to the Kremlin, hours before he had been due to appear at his friend’s wedding. During Tuesday’s hearing, Whelan stood in a glass cage, wearing a blue shirt and glasses, and didn’t respond shouted questions from journalists. His lawyer on Tuesday said that Whelan was suffering from pain in his shoulder and also a possible hernia, which they were seeking to have examined by doctors.
Discharged for bad conduct from the Marines in 2008, Whelan is currently director of global security for a U.S. car-parts supplier, BorgWarner. Born in Canada to British parents, Whelan holds U.K., Irish and Canadian citizenship in addition to U.S citizenship.
Former U.S. officials have said Whelan’s background, in particular his discharge for bad conduct from the Marines, would have made him an unlikely candidate for spy.
Some experts and former American officials have suggested Whelan could have been seized in retaliation for the arrest of Maria Butina, the gun-rights activist who has pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered Russian agent in the U.S.
Whelan’s lawyer has raised the possibility he could eventually be traded for Butina, but only after he has been convicted.
Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. have all expressed concern that Whelan might have been taken as a diplomatic pawn, and have demanded that Russia provide more details on the charges against him.
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