Russia Begins Michigan Native’s Espionage Trial Amid Secrecy and Pandemic

The family of Paul Whelan argues that continuing his trial despite Moscow being locked-down due to COVID-19 is an effort to keep the proceedings hidden.

The trial of a Michigan man accused of espionage has begun despite the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

Russia detained Paul Whelan, a Michigan man, in December, 2018 when he was in the country for a friend’s wedding. Authorities claimed he had a flash drive containing classified information. Whelan counters that an acquaintance gave him the drive, saying it was vacation photos.

Click on the player above to hear David Whelan, Paul’s brother, on the trial in Russia and updates on his condition.

He’s been imprisoned ever since, his detention extended numerous times, even though Russia presented no concrete evidence against him and despite repeated calls for his release from U.S. officials.

“There are no English speakers around him. There are no visitors, including his lawyers. He’s really on his own now.” – David Whelan, brother

Prosecutors began to present their case. But details are few as the trial is closed to the public.

Whelan’s family actually hopes he will be convicted of spying, though he entered a plea of not guilty. 

Moscow has floated the idea of exchanging an American in their custody for a Russian held by the U.S., or some other concession on the part of the Trump Administration. But Russian officials said Whelan could not be considered in any kind of swap until he was formally convicted of a crime.

Twice-a-Month Calls

And Whelan’s family fears his health is deteriorating.

His twin brother, David Whelan, says prison officials are isolating Paul, citing the need to limit contacts because of the coronavirus pandemic that’s ravaging Russia.

“He’s really on his own now,” David says. “There are no English speakers around him. There are no visitors from outside [the prison], including his lawyers.”

The Russians kept Whelan in a kind of solitary confinement. From inside a glass holding cell at a previous hearing, Whelan told reporters Russian security officials were trying to “break” him

Russia appears to be taking a more humanitarian approach to Whelan’s almost year-and-a-half in captivity.

The Moscow City Court judge overseeing the trial granted Whelan permission to call his parents twice a month.

It will be the first time his parents have heard his brother’s voice on the phone since his arrest.

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  • Quinn Klinefelter
    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.