Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, sentenced by a Russian court to 16 years on espionage charges that he rejects, has arrived at a penal colony in the region of Mordovia — an area historically known as the location of Russia’s toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.
Valery Krutov, chairman of the Mordovia branch of the Public Monitoring Commission rights group, said on August 5 that Whelan had arrived at Correctional Colony No. 18 in Mordovia.
Krutov said he is meant to stay at that facility for about two weeks before being transferred to Correctional Colony No. 17 to serve his sentence.
Whelan’s lawyer, Olga Karlova, said on August 4 that Whelan had been moved from the Lefortovo detention center in Moscow days earlier and was being sent to a Mordovian penal colony.
Karlova said she had received the information from Whelan’s brother David, who had been informed of his transfer by the British Embassy.
Whelan holds U.S., Canadian, British, and Irish passports.
Whelan’s relatives and lawyers had said earlier that the ex-U.S. Marine would most likely be held in Lefortovo for a longer time as it was expected he may be exchanged in September for Russian citizens imprisoned in the United States.
Reports in June said Russian and U.S. officials were in talks about a possible swap of Whelan for two Russians — Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko — who are serving lengthy sentences in U.S. prisons.
However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on August 4 that the issue of Whelan’s exchange for Russian citizens had not yet been discussed with U.S. officials.
The notorious system of correctional colonies in Mordovia, established during the 1930s as part of the Soviet Union’s feared gulag system, is still known as one of the toughest prison systems in the former Soviet Union.
The process of transferring convicts in Russia, known as “etap,” involves trains specifically designed for prisoners. The transfers can take days or even weeks.
Prisoners who travel in such trains are crowded into caged compartments with little fresh air, no showers, and only limited access to a toilet or food.
On June 15, the Moscow City Court convicted and sentenced Whelan to 16 years on espionage charges.
The trial was held behind closed doors due to what Russian authorities claimed was “classified” evidence and coronavirus restrictions.
The United States has called the proceedings a “mockery of justice” and demanded Whelan’s immediate release.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has rejected complaints about the “unfairness and excessive harshness” of the sentence.
The 50-year-old Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018.
Russian prosecutors claimed that a flash memory stick found in Whelan’s possession contained classified information.
Whelan says he was framed when he took the memory stick from an acquaintance thinking it contained holiday photos. He has also accused his prison guards of mistreatment.
Whelan was head of global security at a U.S. auto-parts supplier when he was arrested. He and his relatives insist he visited Russia to attend a wedding.
Before the Moscow court announced its verdict, U.S. officials criticized Russian authorities for their “shameful treatment” of Whelan.
With reporting by Interfax and TASS