ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A Russian court today convicted American Paul Whelan of spying and sentenced him to 16 years in prison. Whelan appeared in a glass cage, a common practice in Russian courtrooms. He held up a sign that read, in part, sham trial and no human rights. This case could have repercussions for the already strained U.S.-Russia relationship. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is following the case and joins us now.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Remind us of who Paul Whelan is and what he was doing in Russia.
MYRE: So he was arrested 18 months ago, but there's a very interesting backstory here. Whelan, who's 50 years old, was a U.S. Marine reservist who was serving in Iraq in 2006. Now, he was allowed to take a two-week vacation, and he went to Russia. This is all open and aboveboard. His story is still on the Marine Corps website with a selfie he took in front of the Kremlin. And then as he became - transitioned to civilian life, he worked in corporate security at an auto parts company in Michigan. He continued traveling to Russia, had a social media account there, dozens of friends and contacts, many in the military. Whelan's Russian attorney said he did nothing wrong, but this kind of activity would certainly catch the attention of Russian authorities.
SHAPIRO: So tell us about his arrest.
MYRE: So he went back to Russia in December of 2018 for a friend's wedding. And he went to the Metropol Hotel, a very famous hotel right near the Kremlin. And he said a Russian friend there gave him a thumb drive, and he thought it was photos of the time they'd been spending together. But the Russians then pounced on him, arrested him and said that thumb drive had the names and details of security officials. And Whelan's attorney said he had no knowledge of this, but he's been in jail ever since.
SHAPIRO: What kind of evidence did Russian prosecutors present in court?
MYRE: Well, we don't know a lot because this trial was held mostly in secret. We've heard some comments in public, and that's how we know what - this little bit I've just shared with you. Now, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the treatment of Whelan has been appalling, and he's calling for his immediate release. And after the verdict, I spoke with Whelan's twin brother David Whelan, who lives outside Toronto.
DAVID WHELAN: It's just a remarkable, terrible story.
MYRE: Now, David Whelan says the family has had very limited contact with Paul. But they were able to get some details from the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, who was allowed in the courtroom today.
WHELAN: Ambassador John Sullivan made a fierce defense of Paul on the courthouse steps after the decision was released and has also called our family to explain what had happened inside the courtroom.
MYRE: And David Whelan said his brother had hernia surgery last month, and that's a big worry if his brother has to do hard labor in prison. They've had very occasional letters with him and just one phone call, which was last month and lasted just 15 minutes.
SHAPIRO: Well, now that Whelan has been convicted and sentenced, what's likely to happen next?
MYRE: So strangely, this may present a path for him to be released, although nothing's certain. His lawyer says Russia may want to swap for Russians jailed in the U.S. One name that's being raised is Viktor Bout. He's a notorious arms dealer. Now, the U.S. says Bout and some of these other Russians were convicted in fair trials while Whelan is innocent. And I've spoken with former intelligence officials in the U.S., and they say somebody like Whelan with a military background who traveled openly...
MYRE: ...to Russia and was on social media would never be used for an espionage case in a very risky environment like Russia.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you.
MYRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.