U.S. citizen Paul Whelan holds up a sign denouncing the legal proceedings against him as he stands inside the defendant's cage before hearing the verdict of his espionage trial at the Moscow City Court on Monday. Photo by Uri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE
June 15 (UPI) -- A Russian court on Monday convicted former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in prison, a decision that is expected to inflame simmering tensions between the Kremlin and Washington.
Whelan, 50, was arrested in December 2018 while in Moscow for a wedding in possession of a flash drive that allegedly contained Russian state secrets.
The former U.S. Marine, who also holds British, Canadian and Irish passports, has denied the allegations. After the verdict was announced, he called the trial "political theater."
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded Whelan's "immediate release" and said the United States was "outraged" by his conviction, stating he was deprived of a fair trial guaranteed to him by Russia's international human rights obligations.
"The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling," Pompeo said in a strongly worded statement. "Russia failed to provide Mr. Whelan with a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal; and during his detention has put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condiction; and unconscionably kept him isolated from family and friends."
Whelan's brother David Whelan said in a statement released immediately after the verdict was announced that they expect Paul's defense to file an appeal.
"It was the Russian legal system that was found guilty of injustice. The court's decision merely completes the final piece of this broken judicial process. We had hoped that the court might show some independence but, in the end, Russian judges are political, not legal, entities," he said.
Rebecca Ross, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said Paul Whelan was convicted and sentenced during a secret trial that began in March during which no evidence was produced. She called it "an egregious violation of human rights and international legal norms."
"The United States demands that U.S. citizen [Paul Whelan] be released immediately," Ross quoted U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan as having said. "His conviction is a mockery of justice. The world is watching."
In the days leading up to the verdict's announcement, Sullivan had leveled criticism at the court, with Ross quoting him on Twitter as having called the trial neither transparent nor fair.
Outside courthouse on Monday, Sullivan said he was "disappointed and outraged" by the decision but was not surprised.
"This is not going to have a good impact on our relationship," he said.
The relationship between the Kremlin and Washington has been tense for years but has deteriorated following U.S. allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Last week, Pompeo called on Russia to release Paul Whelan, telling reporters in a press briefing that Sullivan and his team "will keep fighting" for his release.
Late last month, the United States' top diplomat said Paul Whelan was being denied necessary medical treatment.
"We demand Paul's release," he tweeted.
The ruling states Paul Whelan will serve his term at a high-security correctional facility, state-run TASS Russian News Agency reported.