MOSCOW — A court in Moscow on Monday sentenced an American former Marine to 16 years in a high-security prison on espionage charges that and his family have described as a tool to increase his value in a potential future trade for Russians held in the United States.
The former Marine, Paul N. Whelan, 50, had been a frequent visitor to Russia before his last trip to the country ended in December 2018 with an arrest at a luxury hotel in Moscow, where he was attending a wedding, by agents of the Federal Security Service.
“This is all a political theater,” Mr. Whelan said after the announcement of the sentence, which was two years shorter than prosecutors had asked for. He added that he did not understand a word of what had happened during the proceedings on Monday because they were conducted entirely in Russian.
Mr. Whelan, who also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenships, has been held in a high security prison in Moscow since his arrest, and he has publicly expressed his anger with his detention and insisted that he is innocent.
Mr. Whelan once described the legal process into which he had been caught up as “the Moscow goat rodeo,” and at one point he reached out to President Trump to “keep America great” by taking action to secure his release.
“We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities,” said David Whelan, Mr. Whelan’s brother, in a statement after the verdict. “We understand that Paul’s lawyers may appeal this decision within the next two weeks. We hope that, in their continued search for justice for Paul, that the appeal is successful. But Russians do not expect justice from their legal system, and neither do we.”
Now that his brother has been convicted by a court, David Whelan said he hoped that the governments of Russia and the United States could start discussing his release.
Paul Whelan’s trial has been closed to the public. Vladimir A. Zherebenkov, his lawyer, said that the Russian prosecution had little evidence to support their case.
Mr. Whelan has maintained that a Russian friend handed him a thumb drive he had thought contained pictures from their recent trip to a monastery town near Moscow, but Russian officials said it contained classified information.
“Paul knew dozens of people in Russia, not a single one of them said that he tried to recruit them,” Mr. Zherebenkov said in a telephone interview before the sentence was announced. “We believe this was a provocation.”