WASHINGTON (CN) – The lawyer for the former U.S. Marine accused of espionage in Russia said Tuesday that his client received a flash drive containing “state secrets” before his arrest and detention at Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo Prison.
Attorney Vladimir Zherebenkov told Russian media that Paul Whelan, a frequent visitor to Russia, asked an unnamed person for information about travel in the country. Whelan was not able to open the file that was emailed to him so he asked for the information on a flash drive instead, which he didn’t access before he was taken into custody, according to his lawyer.
“He was expecting to see on the flash drive some personal information like pictures or videos, something like that, about that person’s previous trips around Russia,” Zherebenkov told reporters on Tuesday, the 25th day of Whelan’s incarceration. “We don’t know how the materials that contain state secrets ended up there.”
In his first public appearance Tuesday, Whelan appealed his arrest but was ordered to stay behind bars until February. If convicted, he could face 20 years in prison for espionage.
Whelan was arrested last month by the Federal Security Service, the same agency that appointed his lawyer. Because Whelan holds citizenship in several different countries – Britain, Ireland, Canada and the U.S. — it is unclear who the Russians have accused him for spying for.
His brother David Whelan has repeatedly appeared before reporters assuring Paul’s innocence. In a tweet earlier this year, David said the family “was deeply concerned for his safety and well-being. His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.”
David, who works as director of legal information at the Law Society of Ontario, invited Whelan to help out with a wedding in Moscow between an old friend and fellow serviceman because of his frequent travels there. Whelan was detained on the morning of the wedding, causing his family to fear the worst when he didn’t show up to the ceremony.
Whelan’s arrest comes on the heels of the U.S. arrest of Russian woman Maria Butina, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy for her work as a Kremlin agent, causing some speculation about rising tensions between the two countries and a possible prisoner exchange.
Whelan’s brother told Courthouse News on Tuesday that his family hopes “for an alternative, political solution that brings Paul home without him having to endure continued detention on these false charges.”
The U.S. State Department did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment, but Secretary Mike Pompeo told reporters in Brazil last year that “if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return.”