A Russian prison watchdog has been barred from communicating with alleged British spy Paul Whelan during a cell visit on Friday.
Mr Whelan, who was arrested on December 28 and charged with spying, has been moved from solitary confinement to a two-person cell in Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo detention centre.
But guards forbid members of the public monitoring commission from speaking to Mr Whelan in his native tongue during their first visit to him, despite the prisoner’s pleas to “speak to me in English”. They demanded all conversation be in Russian.
Mr Whelan’s Russian language skills were only enough to say “I speak little Russian” and “I don’t understand”. This rendered communication virtually impossible even though the prisoner clearly wanted to talk, commission member Alexander Ionov told The Telegraph.
“The main thing is that he’s healthy, he feels okay, the conditions of his imprisonment correspond with rules and norms, but we will insist that they let us speak normally,” he said. “This is a violation of the rights of advocates and prisoners.”
Russian law requires that prison officials be able to “see and hear” monitors’ conversations with inmates, but does not say in what language. Mr Ionov said he will file a complaint and try to speak to him in English or with an interpreter.
“If something happens with his health he won’t be able to explain what pains he’s having, what symptoms, because no one speaks English,” the prison monitor said. “That’s not right.”
The FSB security service arrested Mr Whelan, the head of security for a US auto parts company who holds American, British, Canadian and Irish passports, in Moscow on December 28. He has been charged with espionage, the foreign ministry confirmed on Friday, which carries a 10- to 20-year prison sentence. Ninety-nine per cent of trials here end in convictions.
No one had apparently been in touch with Mr Whelan since the US ambassador visited him last week. His lawyer, who also doesn’t speak much English, is on holiday in the Dominican Republic.
Mr Whelan is being held in a cell of about 80 square feet with another prisoner and has food and a refrigerator, according to Mr Ionov. Although Lefortovo is known for its harsh conditions, recent renovations have improved the situation significantly, he said. Unlike before, cells now have hot water, a ventilation system and reliable heating.
But he did not appear to have access to any English-language activities. The accused spy was watching television when the prison monitor arrived. His cellmate, who was not present, has a large collection of books in Russian.
“He didn’t look downtrodden, he looked like a normal person, he wasn’t expressing any dramatic emotions,” Mr Ionov said, adding that the prisoner had grown a beard since his last known photographs.
The foreign ministry said on Friday there were no talks about exchanging Mr Whelan for a Russian prisoner held abroad. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman previously dismissed suggestions he could be swapped for Maria Butina, who has pled guilty in the United States to conspiring to act as a Russian agent.
A local media report claimed that Mr Whelan, a former Marine, was seized in the Metropole hotel near the Kremlin shortly after receiving a USB stick with the names of employees of a state agency. He was also in touch online with more than 20 Russians who had a military education or had served, his social media profile showed.
But former CIA officials said the United States would not send an agent to Russia without diplomatic cover, and his relatives cannot believe he was a spy.
David Whelan told The Telegraph that his twin brother was a lifelong military and police aficionado who joined a programme called Law Enforcement Explorers as a teenager.
When they travelled together in Europe at age 18, Paul would strike up acquaintances with local police in countries like Germany.
“They’d take him out for spin in their car, they’d exchange patches, he was finding things related to his interest,” David said. “He goes where he finds things that are interesting, or people that he wants to interact with, I really think it’s that simple. That makes more sense than that he would have been doing any spying.”
Mr Whelan’s family have raised questions about his defence after the lawyer praised the prosecution’s professionalism.
“Our understanding was the embassy would provide a list of English-speaking lawyers, and he would choose one, so we were surprised that he already had a lawyer when the embassy staff arrived, and he doesn’t speak English,” David Whelan said.
“Now his lawyer is on holiday, no one can get ahold of him, so the man is deprived of his defence,” Mr Ionov said.
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