Jailed Americans in Russia May Seek U.S. Transfer, Lawyers Say
Biden’s Putin Policy Tested as Jailed Americans Bid to Go Home
(Bloomberg) -- Two former U.S. Marines imprisoned in Russia may seek transfers to the U.S. to serve their sentences, according to their lawyers. Both men deny wrongdoing.
Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in jail last year after being convicted by a Moscow court of spying, is expected to submit the request this month, according to his defense team.
It is less clear whether Trevor Reed, who’s serving nine years after being found guilty last year of assaulting two police officers, will also apply to be sent to the U.S. to serve his sentence. Reed’s attorney in Russia and his family in the U.S. appear to disagree about his intentions.
Reed was initially skeptical about the idea of requesting a transfer to the U.S. but he hasn’t ruled it out and “he decides these matters himself,” said Sergei Nikitenkov, his Russia-based lawyer. He indicated he’s willing to ask for a move “if there’s no other way,” Nikitenkov said.
Reed’s father, Joey, said Nikitenkov is wrong. “Our son is in no way considering any request to transfer to an American prison and has made this very clear to us,” he said in a phone message. “He is innocent.”
Instead, a spokesman for the family said they would continue to appeal Trevor’s conviction in Russia’s courts.
Reed is currently in a penal colony in the Mordovia region east of Moscow and the family said its most recent contact with him was in mid-July. Nikitenkov said he last spoke with Reed in late June.
U.S. President Joe Biden raised the imprisoned Americans’ cases at his Geneva summit with President Vladimir Putin in June, though U.S. officials haven’t publicly confirmed any understanding or a deal on the issue. Biden told reporters at the summit that “I’m not going to walk away” from Whelan, 51, and Reed, who’s 30.
A return home would mark the first tangible result of Biden’s efforts to stabilize ties with Russia in the face of domestic criticism. The former Cold War foes have started talks on arms control and cyber-security but they’re not expected to yield quick breakthroughs.
A transfer to the U.S. “would be a win for all involved,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who’s now a foreign policy analyst in Moscow. “It was clearly an understanding reached in Geneva.”
The State Department said it “remains focused on securing the release of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed,” while declining to comment further. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow declined to comment.
U.S. officials engaged with the case advised Whelan to seek a transfer, according to three people in Moscow familiar with the matter. The Biden administration is aware of Whelan’s and Reed’s ability to file a formal request to serve their sentences in the U.S., said one U.S. official.
Reed’s lawyer, Nikitenkov, said he’s “sure of a positive outcome because U.S. and Russian officials have expressed a common interest” in resolving the issue.
“Trevor has this right under the law,” and his defense team will meet with him as soon as possible to hear how he wants to proceed, Nikitenkov said of the possibility of seeking a transfer to the U.S. “The main thing is that they should all come home.”
A spokesman for the family, Jonathan Franks, ruled out that course of action, saying “we intend to appeal Trevor’s conviction up to the Court of Cassation, and then up to the Russian Supreme Court.” Franks disputed Nikitenkov’s authority to speak for Reed in an emailed statement Monday.
Nikitenkov confirmed that he plans to lodge an appeal against Reed’s conviction in September.
Russia made no visible progress on past efforts to negotiate a swap of Whelan and Reed for two Russians jailed in the U.S., Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, according to four people in Moscow familiar with the matter.
Still, it’s considering sending Whelan home and the decision now rests with Putin, two of them said.
Bout, an arms dealer dubbed “the merchant of death,” is serving a 25-year sentence he received in 2012 for plotting to sell weapons to a Colombian terrorist organization. Yaroshenko, a pilot, was jailed in 2011 for 20 years for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. Both were seized in sting operations, Bout in Thailand and Yaroshenko in Liberia, and brought to the U.S. for trial.
The U.S. insists Whelan and Reed were unfairly convicted unlike Bout, 54, and Yaroshenko, 52.
In comparison to Donald Trump, the Biden administration has been “more outspoken” about Whelan’s fate and committed to his release as well as that of other imprisoned Americans, David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said by phone. “All of that has been a very different feeling,” he said.
Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov urged Washington July 28 to look for “mutually acceptable” solutions “on the basis of existing legal mechanisms.”
Relations between Moscow and Washington have sunk to the lowest in decades over alleged Kremlin election meddling and escalating U.S. sanctions against Russia. The two sides are now also trying to resolve another source of friction over the number of diplomats working in each other’s embassies.
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