Michigan man held in Russia on espionage charges denied bail

Lawyer: Paul Whelan was unknowingly given Russian state secrets on flash drive

Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of spying in Russia, appears in the dock at a court in Moscow (AP)
Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of spying in Russia, appears in the dock at a court in Moscow (AP)

MOSCOW – The lawyer for an American man being held in Moscow on suspicion of spying said on Tuesday that his client was given a flash drive containing Russian "state secrets" before he was arrested, but did not know he had them and had not looked at them.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, was detained in Moscow at the end of December. The arrest raised speculation that he could be swapped for one of the Russians held in the U.S., such as gun rights activist Maria Butina, who has pleaded guilty to acting as a foreign agent in the U.S.

Whelan made his first public appearance in court on Tuesday to hear the appeal of his arrest. The judge upheld the previous ruling that ordered him to be kept behind bars at least until the end of February.

Whelan was kept in a glass cage and did not speak to reporters.

Spying charges carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years in Russia.

Whelan's lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told Russian news agencies on Tuesday that when his client was detained at a Moscow hotel at the end of December he had something with him that contained "state secrets."

The lawyer said that Whelan was a frequent visitor to Russia and that he asked an unnamed person to email him something about travel around the country. Whelan reportedly was not able to download it and then asked that person to put it on a flash-drive.

"He was expecting to see on the flash drive some personal information like pictures or videos, something like that, about that person's previous trips around Russia," Zherebenkov told reporters. "We don't know how the materials that contain state secrets ended up there."

The lawyer said the American was detained before he could open the files.

Zherebenkov also said it was not clear what has happened to the person who reportedly gave the flash drive to Whelan.

Zherebenkov said that the investigators have not yet disclosed which country he is accused of spying for.

Whelan holds U.S., Canadian, British and Irish citizenships.

Whelan, 48, was discharged from the Marines for bad conduct. He works as the global security director for a U.S. automobile parts manufacturer and lives in Michigan. His family has said he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

Watch the report from Monday night here: 

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Whelan family hoping for best

Local 4 and ClickOnDetroit spoke with Whelan's brother, David Whelan, over the phone this week. The family is hanging on as well as it can, expecting the worst and hoping for the best, he said. Family members said they're trying to keep Paul Whelan's life in American exactly as it was before this ordeal.

The family is also looking for help through a GoFundMe page because legal bills are expected to skyrocket.

Paul Whelan is charged with espionage and is being held in the infamous Lefortovo Prison. His family expects the Russian legal system to drag out the case for two or more years.

Family members aren't holding out much hope that Tuesday's court appearance, which American diplomatic personnel will attend, will do much to change Paul Whelan's dire situation.

"The information I have is it's a closed court hearing and that it is really just a standard pretrial procedure in Russian criminal court to determine whether the person can be bonded out or whether detained in pretrial phase," David Whelan said.

While four countries -- the United States, Ireland, Canada and the United Kingdom -- claim Paul Whelan as a citizen, only displomatic corps from the U.S. and Ireland have seen him. Ireland's consul saw him five days ago.

In the meantime, the Whelan family is doing what it can to keep their loved one's life in the U.S. going as if nothing has changed.

"He's got bills to pay like all of us, so just because you're in a Russian jail doesn't mean you don't have to pay rent or pay for anything else, and we're trying to keep that going under the assumption, hopefully, he'll be back soon enough to pick up his life where he left it rather than make a lot of changes," David Whelan said.

The U.S. Embassy is looking to get another meeting with Paul Whelan. One scheduled for Jan. 17 was postponed. The U.S. will also be pushing for Canadian and British consular support to be allowed. So far, Russia hasn't approved the requests.

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