MOSCOW (Reuters) – The lawyer for a former U.S. marine accused of spying by Russia said on Tuesday that his client had been misled before his arrest and believed that a thumb drive handed to him in a hotel room had contained holiday snaps rather than secret information.
Russia’s Federal Security Service detained Paul Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28.
Whelan appeared in a Moscow court on Tuesday, where a judge rejected releasing him on bail. If found guilty of espionage, he could be imprisoned for up to 20 years.
Whelan, who denies the charges, was detained after receiving a thumb drive containing a list of all the employees of a secret Russian state agency, the Russian online news portal Rosbalt.ru reported this month.
Rosbalt cited a Russian intelligence source it did not identify as saying that Whelan had been spying for 10 years, using the internet to identify targets from whom he could obtain information, and that the list he was caught with had long been of interest to U.S. spies.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to support that version of events, later telling reporters Whelan had been “caught red-handed” carrying out “specific illegal actions” in his hotel room.
But Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan’s lawyer, said on Tuesday that his client had accepted the information unknowingly.
“Paul was actually meant to receive information from an individual that was not classified,” Zherebenkov told reporters.
“These were cultural things, a trip to a cathedral, Paul’s holiday … photographs. But as it turned out, it (the thumb drive) contained classified information.”
The lawyer said Whelan had not been able to see what was on the thumb drive because he had been detained before he had a chance to do so.
His twin brother David Whelan, who lives in Canada, in a statement said his family was disappointed Paul had been denied bail. The family have said he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.
“We are certain that he was entrapped and is not guilty of espionage,” David Whelan’s statement said.
Wearing a blue shirt and dark trousers, he looked calm but somber as he stood inside a glass cage in the courtroom.
The hearing was closed to reporters, but his lawyer said afterwards that Whelan had made a 15-minute speech rejecting the allegations against him in detail.
The lawyer declined to clarify if Whelan had known the person who handed him the information.
He said Whelan had been experiencing some minor health problems in custody and was receiving treatment.
Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth; Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova in Moscow and Barbara Goldberg in New York; writing by Andrew Osborn; editing by Kevin Liffey and Grant McCool