Russian lawyer appeals for accused U.S. spy's release on bail

/ CBS News

Sources: American jailed in Russia not a spy

A Russian lawyer representing the American man jailed in Russia as an alleged spy has filed a request in Moscow for him to be released on bail, but it's unclear when Russian officials will even consider the request, and the lawyer admits Paul Whelan could be stuck in prison for up to a year.

Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who also holds a British passport, traveled to Russia on December 22 for a friend's wedding. He was arrested by the Russian special security services (FSB) and accused of being an American spy who had tried to recruit Russian nationals via social media.

Russia's state-run media reported on Thursday that the office of defense attorney Vladimir Zherebenkov had appealed to the court for Whelan's release on bail, but that the court had set no date for a hearing on the appeal

"Serious, big cases being investigated by the (Federal Security Service) on average last from six months to a year," Zherebenkov, who was on vacation in the Dominican Republic, told The Wall Street Journal by phone on Wednesday.

His family has told CBS News they first learned of his detention through media reports. U.S. intelligence and State Department sources have told CBS News they're confident Whelan is not a spy. His family also denies all the accusations against him.

U.S. ambassador meets with American detained in Russia

Since 2017, Whelan has worked for a Michigan-based auto parts company called BorgWarner, most recently as director of global security. He spent 14 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and was discharged in 2008 for bad conduct related to larceny, according to the military.

Appeals for Whelan's release

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday the U.S. would demand Whelan's immediate return if the detention was not deemed appropriate. If found guilty by the Russian court, Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison.

Whelan's family has urged Congress to take action and ensure his release. U.S. Embassy staff in Moscow have visited the American and confirmed he's safe, and Ambassador Jon Huntsman has also met with him in prison.

"Our focus remains on ensuring that Paul is safe, well treated, has a good lawyer, and is coming home. We urge the U.S. Congress and the State Department to help on Paul's behalf to secure his release and return him home soon," the family said.

Ambassador Huntsman met Whelan at the Lefortovo Detention Facility, and the prisoner's family thanked him for staying in "regular contact" with Whelan and assuring his "rights will be respected."

Zherebenkov told Russian media, before he went on vacation, that he was impressed with Whelan's upbeat mood while in detention. He told The Wall Street Journal again from his vacation spot this week that Whelan was bearing the stress of his detention with a, "sense of dignity, with humor and hope."

What Whelan is accused of

While the Russian government has given very little information publicly on the American's detention, the country's media outlets cited investigators last week as saying Whelan was caught "red-handed" after receiving "state secrets" from an unidentified Russian national.

According to the Rosbalt news outlet, which is thought to have exclusive sources via indirect links with the Kremlin, Whelan is accused of trying to recruit a long-time Russian acquaintance to gain a list of names of employees of a Russian security agency.

Rosbalt cited an anonymous source in Russia's intelligence community as saying that Whelan had a profile on a Russian version of Facebook called VKontakte, where he would establish and foster contact with Russian nationals "targeted" for their presumed access to classified information.

First published on January 10, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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