Russia still hasn’t specified exactly why it’s been holding a former U.S. Marine on espionage charges, but his lawyer said he was handed a flash drive containing state secrets moments before he was arrested, and not likely not aware it held secret files.
Vladimir Zherebenkov, the court-appointed lawyer for Paul Whelan, told reporters at a Moscow court Tuesday that his client hadn’t been able to check the contents of the flash drive before he was arrested in Moscow on Dec. 28 on suspicion of carrying out an unspecified act of espionage.
“I can only confirm that information constituting state secrets was found in the course of Whelan’s detention,” Zherebenkov told journalists at a Moscow court where Whelan was attending a pre-trial hearing.
“But how he got it, what he was supposed to do with it, and whether Whelan knew that he had secret information is unknown.” Zherebenkov told CNN that his client believed the drive contained vacation photos.
Russian authorities say that Whelan, a 48-year-old American who also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenship, was caught red-handed in an act of espionage, but the substance of the charges against him have not been made public. If found guilty, Whelan faces up to 20 years in prison.
Russian news outlet Rosbalt, citing an unnamed source, has reported that FSB agents swooped in on Whelan in a hotel room near the Kremlin moments after he was handed a USB stick by a Russian citizen that contained the classified names of people employed at a Russian security agency.
Whelan’s lawyer said that as the matter pertains to national security, he is unable to publicly comment on the substance of the charges against his client, other than what has already been disclosed by the government.
Whelan, head of global security for Michigan-based car parts supplier BorgWarner, insists he is innocent. His family claim he is not a spy and was in Moscow to attend a wedding.
He was denied bail at Tuesday’s pre-trial hearing, meaning he will remain in Moscow’s Lefortovo detention center until at least the end of February.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow has said it is closely following the case and has called for a “fair and transparent trial.”
Cover: Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, right, waits in a court room at the Moscow City Court, in Moscow. Paul was accused of espionage and detained by the Russian Federal Security Service on December 28, 2018. Grigory Sysoev / Sputnik via AP