Exclusive: Russia in prisoner swap talks with U.S. over detained American - lawyer

Tom Balmforth
·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: Verdict hearing of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, in Moscow

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia and the United States are in talks on a possible prisoner swap that could secure the release of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine jailed for spying, within two to three months, his lawyer told Reuters on Monday.

Russia convicted Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, of spying last June and sentenced him to 16 years in jail. He denied spying and said he was set up in a sting operation. Washington demanded his release.

Moscow said that Whelan had been caught red-handed with classified information in a Moscow hotel room where agents from the Federal Security Service detained him on Dec. 28, 2018.

Whelan's Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said that talks on an exchange were now taking place between Russian and U.S. security services.

"I speak with the siloviks (Russia's security services). They say that negotiations are under way. The question with an exchange will be resolved," he said.

"As far as I understand some kind of initiative has appeared, I think the American side has begun initiating talks...specifically under Biden," he said.

Zherebenkov has said in the past that he believed Moscow wanted an exchange deal that could include Whelan. It has not been previously reported that talks with U.S. President Joe Biden's administration were happening.

"According to my information, negotiations are underway and the question of a handover will be resolved in the coming two to three months," he added.

The U.S. Embassy did not reply to a request for comment.

Zherebenkov said he was not in a position to say if the talks were broaching the case of Trevor Reed, another former U.S. marine who was jailed by Russia for nine years in July for endangering the lives of two Moscow policemen.

Washington has protested both Whelan and Reed's cases, describing the latter's trial as "theater of the absurd" and lacking serious evidence.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said on Jan. 27 that Reed and Whelan were wrongly presented in the West as innocent victims and had been convicted of crimes in Russia. It said talk of their exchange was being used to exert pressure on Moscow.

Zherebenkov said there were various views in Moscow as to which Russians held in custody by the United States could be exchanged for Whelan.

He named arms dealer Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine. Russia has long sought their release. He also suggested unnamed Russian entrepreneurs and people he described as computer programmers.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Angus MacSwan)