Kin of accused spy Paul Whelan defends him: ‘Sounds like he was set up’

The family of jailed U.S. citizen Paul Whelan told Fox News they are hoping that Thursday will be a significant day for them.

According to Whelan’s twin brother David, they have learned Canadian diplomats will be allowed to visit Paul, who has been incarcerated in Moscow on espionage charges. Whelan also holds Canadian citizenship (as well as Irish and British).

The U.S. Ambassador to Moscow visited him January 2 and there was supposed to be a second consular visit last week, but Moscow called that off. Nobody in the Whelan family has been able to speak to Paul since his arrest December 28. They are anxious about his health and the conditions under which he is living. For them, consular access is a lifeline.

Whelan’s first appearance in court was Tuesday. He was denied bail. The family said they had expected as much.

When Fox News asked if the Whelans were satisfied with the Russian lawyer defending Paul, they said they were not in a position to judge. David Whelan did say they were unsure why this particular lawyer was appointed.

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“It wasn’t the process we expected. Normally, the U.S. government goes in with a list of English-speaking lawyers and the detainee can choose. When Embassy staff arrived on January 2, Paul essentially said, ‘I already have a lawyer.’”

That lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said Tuesday that he felt the bail hearing was conducted “constructively” but in the same breath said that he has only had access to 5 percent of Whelan’s file.

He also indicated his belief that Whelan had been set up when he was handed a flash drive by an as-yet unidentified Russian.

This undated photo provided by the Whelan family shows Paul Whelan in Iceland. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine arrested in Russia on espionage charges, was visiting Moscow over the holidays to attend a wedding when he suddenly disappeared. (Courtesy of the Whelan Family via AP)

This undated photo provided by the Whelan family shows Paul Whelan in Iceland. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine arrested in Russia on espionage charges, was visiting Moscow over the holidays to attend a wedding when he suddenly disappeared. (Courtesy of the Whelan Family via AP)

“Yes, on a flash drive he received information which is a state secret,” Zherebenkov said. “In reality, Paul was expecting to receive some personal information which is not a state secret, information concerning culture, for instance.”

In other words, according to Zherebenkov, Whelan thought he was getting travel tips.

The Whelan family is frustrated that they have so little information about the accusations against Paul. Most has come from Russian media reports, which have suggested that the flash drive contained names of people who work for a sensitive security-related branch of the government.

It has been nearly a month since Paul Whelan was arrested. They said they are surprised that, nearly a month after his arrest, even the U.S. government has not been given the full story of what the Russians believe Whelan was up to.

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“We only know what has been published, which is really everything I learned on the first day when I looked it up on Google, which is that he’s been arrested for alleged violations of the espionage act,” David Whelan said. “And Foreign Minister Lavrov said at one point it was something to do with ‘collection,’ which is one of the elements of the espionage act.  It sounds like he was set up to me.”

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David Whelan insists his brother is not a spy.  If Paul Whelan were to be convicted of espionage, he could face up to 20 years behind bars.  His family wants him out of Russia before a trial for such serious charges might even begin.