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Russian lawyer for Paul Whelan on vacation as accused US spy sits in Moscow prison



A Russian lawyer representing a US citizen who’s been detained on espionage charges in Russia is on vacation as his client sits in one of the most infamous prisons in Moscow.

Vladimir Zherebenkov, who’s representing Paul Whelan, was in the Dominican Republic on Thursday as his office filed a request for his client to be released on bail.

Zherebenkov told The Daily Beast the detention center Whelan in which is currently being held, Lefortovo prison, is closed for the holidays and there’s not much he can do for him this week. Lefortovo, built in the 19th century, was where people were tortured and killed throughout the Soviet era. It has a notorious reputation in Moscow.

“Paul is absolutely healthy, his heart is in good shape, he has been checked by the investigators,” Zherebenkov said. “What makes me happy is that he does not lose his spirit, as many people do in his situation.”

Read more: Paul Whelan, the US Marine veteran detained in Russia, has been charged with espionage, state media reports

Officers of Russia’s Federal Service for the Execution of Penal Sentences (FSIN) special forces walk near an armored vehicle before leaving Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

The Russian lawyer was reportedly tapped to be Whelan’s attorney by the same investigators with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) who arrested him.

Zherebenkov is a former Soviet government investigator who’s never before represented a foreign citizen charged with espionage, and he reportedly has close ties to the FSB. He’s typically represented famous Russians, including oligarchs, politicians, and alleged smugglers, according to The Washington Post.

Zherebenkov told the Post that Whelan sought him out for representation, seemingly contradicting reports suggesting the FSB appointed him. But he also said that “who recommended me to Whelan is a secret between me and him.”

Read more: Here’s a look at the infamous Russian prison where US citizen Paul Whelan is being held on espionage charges

“I defend famous people,” Zherebenkov added. “So it makes sense that I defend Paul Whelan.”

Whelan, 48, does not fit the typical profile of a spy, experts have said. Whelan’s family also insists he’s not a spy.

Bizarre details surrounding his life, such as the fact he’s a citizen of four countries, have added to confusion surrounding his arrest and the charges against him. Whelan, who’s a global security chief for a Michigan-based auto supplies company, is also a former US Marine and was discharged for poor conduct.

But Zherebenkov has essentially contended he believes his client his guilty.

Speaking on the unusual circumstances surrounding Whelan’s arrest by the FSB, Zherebenkov told The Daily Beast, “They are highly professional investigators. Of course to avoid a scandal they double-checked all their reasons before they accused him.”

Zherebenkov then complained that “Americans arrest our innocent citizens all the time,” perhaps alluding to the case of accused Russian spy Maria Butina, and claimed Russians don’t detain innocent people.

“If they grabbed the person, it means they have serious reason for that, they can prove his guilt,” he said.

Read more: National-security experts say a US Marine veteran detained in Russia doesn’t fit the profile of a spy, but he could be a bargaining chip for a prisoner swap

Some former members of the US intelligence community believe Whelan was arrested so the Russians can swap him for Butina. Relatedly, Zherebenkov has expressed hope that Whelan will open the possibility of bring home “one Russian soul.”

“I myself hope that we can rescue and bring home one Russian soul,” the Russian lawyer recently told The New York Times.

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