TORONTO — The family of a Canadian-American corporate security executive convicted of espionage by a Russian court say they are trying to bring him back home.
Paul Whelan, who was born in Ottawa but holds Canadian, American, British and Irish citizenship, was convicted Monday and sentenced to 16 years in prison after a closed trial in Moscow that the U.S. has denounced as a “mockery of justice.”
His twin brother David, who lives in Toronto, said their family always expected a conviction, but the Russian government wouldn’t speak about potentially releasing Paul until the court had rendered its verdict.
“Today is really the removal of that obstacle. It’s the silver lining,” David Whelan said in an interview. “Now we can say, OK, everybody can get down to brass tacks and figure out how to get Paul home.
“It may be a positive discussion or may be a negative discussion but I think that there are tools there, that the U.S. government and the Russian government have used in the past.”
Paul Whelan, an American corporate security executive who also holds British and Irish citizenship, has insisted he is innocent, saying he was set up when he was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 while visiting Russia to attend a friend’s wedding.
David Whelan said that aside from one 15-minute phone call to their parents in Michigan, the family has had no direct contact with Paul since his arrest nearly 18 months ago. Paul Whelan underwent emergency surgery two weeks ago for a hernia, and David said the family only learned about the procedure from reading about it in the newspaper.
“That tends to be our primary way of getting timely information or if one of the four embassies have gone to see Paul and brings back messages from him,” said Whelan, who lives in Toronto.
“Then we are sometimes able to send back messages that way.”
David Whelan also notes that one of his brother’s two lawyers speaks English and can carry messages back and forth, but only with permission from the judge or the prosecutor.
Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan’s Russian lawyer, has pointed at Russian official statements signalling a possibility that his client could be exchanged for Russians Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko.
Bout, a Russian arms trader, is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. for a 2011 conviction on charges he conspired to sell millions of dollars of weapons to Colombian rebels. He insisted he was a legitimate businessman.
Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot, is serving a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. after he was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the U.S.
Russian officials and lawmakers have cast the convictions of Bout and Yaroshenko as politically motivated and pushed for their release.
Arne Kislenko, who teaches the history of espionage at Ryerson University and used to work in intelligence, said it seems as though Whelan’s case was always a political ploy by the Russian government.
“Just the way that the trial’s been shaped, the outcome — which was obviously a foregone conclusion — it has all the dynamics of political theatre,” said Kislenko.
“Having studied and followed Russian politics in this respect, then it’s likely they have an endgame and I think that endgame is an exchange of some sort.”
David Whelan said his family has been in touch with lobbyists that have connections to U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as members of Congress, to help facilitate a trade.
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne weighed in on the issue in a tweet Monday evening, saying Canada is “deeply concerned” by Whelan’s conviction and “severe” sentence.
“We call upon Russia to ensure a fair and transparent appeal process,” Champagne wrote.
“We will continue to work with our partners from (Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States) to support him and his family.”
— With files from The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 15, 2020.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press