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Update On American Held In Russia


Now an update on the case of Paul Whelan, an American who's in jail in Russia after being accused of spying - he was arrested in a Moscow hotel right before New Year's Eve, and he's being held in one of the city's most infamous prisons. NPR's Lucian Kim tells us more from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Paul Whelan made his first and so far only public appearance since his arrest during a court hearing in January. Wearing a blue, button-down oxford shirt and glasses, the 48-year-old was held in a glass box customary for defendants in Russian courtrooms.


UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: The judge declined to release him on bail. And Whelan was sent back to his cell in Moscow's Lefortovo prison. Days after Whelan's arrest by the FSB, Russia's federal security service, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded more information.


MIKE POMPEO: We've made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he's been accused of. And if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return.

KIM: More than a month has passed since then. Because Whelan is accused of espionage, practically all the details of his case are classified. All that's known is that he was given a thumb drive that contains state secrets. Whelan maintains his innocence. The Russian government denies speculation in Western media that Whelan was arrested so he could be exchanged for a Russian prisoner in the United States.


SERGEY LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Whelan was caught red-handed and, anyway, Russia doesn't use people as bargaining chips. What complicates Whelan's case is that besides holding a U.S. passport, he is also a citizen of Britain, Ireland and Canada. Consular officials from all four countries, including U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, have now seen Whelan in prison. Paul Whelan's family has no way of directly contacting him, so those visits are a vital link.

DAVID WHELAN: We're pleased with the consular efforts. To the extent that those continue and the Russians don't balk or block those accesses, it gives us some confidence that Paul's health and his rights are being taken care of.

KIM: Paul Whelan's twin brother David, who lives in Canada, has taken on the role of family spokesman. He says he's also been in touch with his brother's Russian lawyer, who appeared on the scene shortly after Paul was arrested.

WHELAN: We aren't even clear on whether he had a choice in the matter of selecting the lawyer.

KIM: That lawyer is Vladimir Zherebenkov.



KIM: In an interview in his Moscow office, he brushes off David Whelan's concerns, saying Paul found him on the recommendation of unnamed friends. Zherebenkov says he's a well-known lawyer who has successfully defended high-profile clients, including the Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko. He says he's the perfect defense counsel because he's a former police investigator. He even claims he was a detainee in the same prison where Whelan is being held.


ZHEREBENKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Zherebenkov says he spent a year in pre-trial detention there before being vindicated in a bribery case, so he knows exactly what it means to be wrongly accused. Although he doesn't speak English, Zherebenkov says there's no language barrier because he has a lawyer on his team who's fluent in English.


ZHEREBENKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He says Whelan is holding up surprisingly well and keeping up his spirits. The family is still concerned about Paul Whelan's condition and wants him to come home. But that could be a long way off. The Russian investigation is still continuing, and it could easily take a year before Whelan's case goes to trial. The maximum sentence for espionage is 20 years, and the acquittal rate in Russia is less than 1 percent.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.