US man held in Russia on espionage charges to appear in court

Moscow (AFP) –


A US national being held in Russia on espionage charges will appear in court Tuesday for a bail hearing, but his lawyer told journalists he expects his client to remain in custody.

"In Russia as a rule people are kept in custody," Paul Whelan's lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said outside the Moscow court where the former marine was due to appear for the closed hearing.

Russia's FSB security service arrested Whelan, a security official at a US auto parts company, on December 28, saying that he was caught "while carrying out an act of espionage".

Analysts have speculated that Whelan, 48, was arrested to pave the way for a possible spy swap with a Russian agent arrested abroad, possibly Marina Butina.

Butina is a gun rights campaigner who was convicted of being a "foreign agent" in the United States last month.

Zherebenkov said he expected any trial to last for at least half a year and that there could be no talk of any exchange until it was completed.

"I saw him last week... he feels well, he has a sense of dignity," the lawyer added.

A spokeswoman for the US embassy in Moscow told Russian media it was "closely following" the case.

We "continue to urge Russia to follow international law and provide a quick, fair and transparent trial," Andrea Kalan said.

The US ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, has visited Whelan at Moscow's Lefortovo prison.

Whelan's family said he was in Moscow for a friend's wedding and US security experts have raised doubts over whether he was a spy.

Whelan also holds British, Irish and Canadian passports but his family said in a statement Monday that the UK and Canadian governments had been denied consular access.

The New York Times has reported that the Marine Corps court-martialed Whelan in 2008 on charges of larceny and passing bad checks, an offence that in most cases disqualifies candidates from foreign intelligence work.

Espionage is punishable in Russia by up to 20 years in jail.