A lawyer for Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine jailed in Russia on an espionage charge, says his client did not know that a USB stick he was given in his hotel room moments before his arrest contained state secrets.
Speaking to reporters on January 22, after a Moscow court refused to release Whelan on bail, attorney Vladimir Zherebenkov suggested that the foreigner was the victim of a setup.
Whelan believed he was being given a memory stick that contained photos and other material from his own previous trips to Russia, Zherebenkov said.
He thought "these were cultural things, a trip to a cathedral, Paul's holiday...photographs," the lawyer said. "Why it turned out that information containing state secrets was on there is still unknown."
Whelan, who also holds citizenship in Ireland, Canada, and Britain, was arrested in Moscow by Federal Security Service (FSB) agents on December 28.
Russian authorities allege he was caught "red-handed" in an act of espionage, and he faces 10 to 20 years in prison if tried and convicted.
Zherebenkov says he denies guilt, and his family in North America says he is innocent, is not a spy, and was in Moscow to attend a friend's wedding to a Russian woman.
Russian authorities have not released details of the espionage allegations against Whelan. The news agency Rosbalt, citing an unnamed source, has reported that Whelan was detained in his room at the Metropol hotel near the Kremlin after receiving a USB stick containing a classified list of employees of an unspecified Russian security agency.
Zherebenkov's remarks appeared to suggest that he might claim that evidence was planted on Whelan.
A day after Whelan was detained, Moscow's Lefortovo district court ordered him to be held in pretrial detention until February 28 -- a term that can be extended by court decision.
At the hearing on January 22, the Moscow City Court upheld that ruling, rejecting a request for his release on bail
Whelan, 48, was brought to the courthouse from Moscow's Lefortovo jail, where suspects arrested by the FSB are often held, and was confined to a metal enclosure during the proceedings.
He declined to answer questions about his welfare and the accusations against him, a reporter for The Daily Telegraph said on Twitter.
Zherebenkov said he would appeal the ruling and continue to seek Whelan's release.
Ahead of the hearing, Interfax quoted U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Andrea Kalan as saying that representatives of the embassy would attend.
"We are closely following Paul Whelan's case and continuing to call on Russia to adhere to international law and provide detained U.S. citizens with fast, fair, and transparent judicial processes," she said, according to a Russian-language Interfax report.
Whelan's arrest and prosecution come amid persistent tension between Moscow and Western countries, particularly the United States and Britain, over a range of issues including Russia's interference in Ukraine, its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March 2018 with a deadly Soviet-designed nerve agent.
On January 20, his brother David announced a public campaign to help fund his legal defense.