On Friday, a Moscow court extended to three additional months the detention of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine facing espionage charges.
Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan’s counsel, told the media that his client will remain in custody until the trial begins on May 28th. The judge’s decision to keep the Marine veteran imprisoned comes following a request by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) earlier this week.
Whelan was also deemed by the court to be mentally and physically fit to face charges. “My client underwent a forensic medical examination and was declared competent to stand trial,” said Zherebenkov.
Whelan, 48, was arrested in Moscow on December 28th and is facing charges of spying for the U.S. Should he be convicted, he will face between 10 and 20 years in jail. Whelan’s family deny the charges, stating that he had found himself in Moscow solely to celebrate the retirement party of a fellow Marine.
While Zherebenkov alleged that prosecutors “don’t have strong evidence to back up the charges,” he admitted that Whelan was found in his hotel room with a flash drive containing sensitive Russian military secrets, but maintained he hadn’t been aware that he was dealing with classified material.
Whelan is a citizen of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland. All four countries say that they will fight for his release and will coordinate together on how to best assist Whelan avoid a heavy prison sentence.
Whelan had been a police officer in his home state of Michigan before enlisting in the U.S. Marines. He deployed to Iraq in 2004 and again in 2006. Later, Whelan was given a dishonorable discharge in 2008 from the Marines after being convicted on larceny charges, including accusations that he embezzled $10,000 from the Marines and wrote $60,000 of counterfeit checks.
Following his discharge, Whelan visited Russia repeatedly and established frequent contacts on a local Russian social media site. To support the claim that Whelan was indeed a U.S. intelligence agent, Russian officials point to the fact that the overwhelming majority of his contacts had connections to the Russian military.
However, Whelan’s friends, family, and veterans of the U.S. intelligence community say that it was impossible for him to have been spying for the U.S. government, invoking the problematic behavior that resulted in his court martial as proof that no intelligence agency would utilize him as human intel.
“This guy is not an intel asset,” former U.S. intelligence officer Malcom Nance told The New York Times following Whelan’s arrest. “[Whelan] is not the type of person you would use as an asset. There is no way.”