Paul Whelan: Russia spy suspect ‘more Mr Bean than James Bond’

Media caption‘My human rights are being violated and my life threatened’

Ten months after his arrest on espionage charges in Moscow, ex-US marine Paul Whelan has said he is more like naive, fictional buffoon Mr Bean than suave spy James Bond.

Russia says he was caught red-handed with state secrets on electronic files.

A judge extended his pre-trial detention until 29 December.

As the judge delivered his ruling, Mr Whelan defied orders to keep quiet, reading a statement from a cage guarded by an FSB officer in a balaclava.

“Russia says it caught James Bond on a spy mission. In reality, they abducted Mr Bean on holiday,” Mr Whelan told the court.

A regular visitor to Russia, who made many friends over the years, Paul Whelan was detained at the Metropol hotel in December. He says he was getting ready for a wedding when an old friend turned up unexpectedly. Moments later, security officers burst in and arrested him for receiving state secrets.

Mr Whelan claims the flash drive they found was planted by the friend: an FSB officer he believes betrayed him.

His lawyers, who are now working their way through several thousand pages of the case files – including surveillance material – say they’ve still seen nothing to prove his guilt.

He has become increasingly defiant at his court appearances, a rare few hours out of his prison cell every three months.

Media captionRussia spy case: Is Paul Whelan a hostage of Russia or a spy?

This time he told the BBC the case against him was “a joke”.

“This is just a hostage situation,” he said in court.

The American, who also holds British, Irish and Canadian passports, suspects he’s a victim of plummeting relations between Russia and the West. Some have speculated that Moscow wants to swap him for a Russian prisoner abroad, though the Foreign Ministry here denies that.

Its spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, insists he was caught red-handed. “We have the facts,” she said last week.

At his latest hearing, the ex-Marine requested the prosecutor and judge be replaced for their failure to investigate his claims of ill treatment and a lack of objectivity.

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Mr Whelan was guarded in the defendants’ cage by a balaclava-clad FSB officer

When the judge refused, as neither are official grounds for recusal, Mr Whelan displayed mock incredulity.

“So if the prosecutor were my sister that would be illegal, but human rights violations are fine?'” he asked.

“What do you think, Alexei? Shall we go for it?” he then joked to the chief investigator, wondering whether to request his removal too.

“It’s your right,” the FSB officer replied in English, with a smile.

But this high-profile case is a serious matter.

Mr Whelan claimed today he had been assaulted by prison staff. His lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said later that a guard had been disciplined following a dispute over the American “jumping and singing” during his daily exercise hour.

More serious still, the espionage charge he’s facing carries a 20-year prison sentence.

The investigation is now complete and his legal team say there is “lots in their favour” in the files they’ve been handed: none of his other Russian friends have said he claimed to be a spy or tried to recruit them.

But the lawyers say Mr Whelan is going through the papers himself in such detail, his trial is now unlikely to start before Spring.

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Mr Whelan’s family insist he was only visiting Russia to attend a friend’s wedding

‘I said to him, maybe we should get it over and done with this year? Get you home sooner,’ Mr Zherebenkov recalled. ‘But he wants to read everything, very carefully.’

The team have talked before of possible “misunderstandings” between Mr Whelan and his FSB “friend”. They’ve hinted at jokes, maybe lost in translation. His family confirm that he’s well known for his “banter”, as displayed recently in court.

That may explain Mr Whelan likening himself to the hapless, but harmless, Mr Bean. It’s hard to judge as the case is secret, including details on what data he allegedly sought, who for and how.

But Paul Whelan argues there’s nothing to hide. So as he was led out of court in handcuffs, he attempted to break the blackout by flinging a copy of the latest court ruling at me down the corridor. It was scooped up by a Western diplomat. Only, the information it reveals is classified.

Paul Whelan: Russia spy suspect ‘more Mr Bean than James Bond’