A Moscow court has sentenced a second former U.S. Marine to a long jail term in a trial that has fueled concerns the American ex-servicemen may have been targeted in Russia for political reasons.
Trevor Reed, a 29-year-old from Texas, was sentenced to nine years in a prison colony on Thursday, convicted on charges of violently assaulting two police officers.
Reed's family have said the charges are trumped up and that there was no evidence to support them. Following the verdict, the United States ambassador to Moscow called the conviction absurd.
"This conviction, and a sentence of nine years, for an alleged crime that so obviously did not occur, is ridiculous. I cannot even say 'miscarriage of justice,' because clearly 'justice' was not even considered. This was theater of the absurd," ambassador John J. Sullivan said in the statement.
Sullivan said he had already spoken with Reed's father and pledged the embassy "will not rest" until Reed is freed and returned to the United States.
Reed's case had already drawn comparisons to that of Paul Whelan, another former U.S. Marine who was sentenced to 16 years prison in June on espionage charges. U.S. officials and Whelan's family have said he is the victim of a set up by Russia's security services who have targeted him to use as a bargaining chip with the United States.
Since Whelan's conviction, Russia has raised the possibility of trading him for Russian citizens jailed in the United States.
The details of Reed's case are very different and initially the family said they hoped Reed was the victim of a corrupt judicial process and that there was no political angle to the case. But in recent months they had become increasingly alarmed. Following Thursday's verdict and its exceptionally harsh sentence they said they are now convinced Reed's detention is political.
"It all adds up to it's more than just inept, unprofessional government workers," Reed's father, Joey Reed, told ABC News after the hearing. He said he did not know why Reed had been seized or whether his conviction was related to Whelan's case.
"I don't know at what level this was pushed. But somewhere someone in the government has pushed for Trevor to not leave Russia. It's obvious. There's no way that anyone, Russian or American, should ever have been convicted of this nothing," Reed said.
Reed been in detention since last August in Moscow, where he had been visiting his fiancee and studying Russian since May. Days before he was due to leave he became heavily intoxicated at a party. According to his fiancee, Alina Tsybulnik, on the way home in a friend's car Reed became unmanageable and forced them to pull over.
The friends called the police hoping they would take Reed to a hospital or a drunk tank, according to Tsybulnik, 22.
Two officers arrived and agreed to take Reed to a police station to sober up. Tsybulnik said she was told to come back and pick him up in a few hours. But when she returned she said she found things had changed. Reed now allegedly had bruises on his face and agents from Russia's powerful domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, arrived to question him.
Afterward, police charged Reed with using life-threatening force against the two officers. They accused Reed of grabbing one of the officers while he was driving, causing the police car to swerve into oncoming traffic.
Reed's lawyers have said there is no evidence of that. They said traffic camera footage showed the car never swerved. The lawyers said that security camera footage from the police station was deleted because investigators delayed handing it over. In court hearings attended by ABC News, the officers repeatedly contradicted their earlier written testimonies and described an incident that appeared to be a far more minor than it had been portrayed by the prosecution.
Prosecutors nonetheless have treated it as a life-threatening attack on the officers. The nine-year sentence was the maximum possible for the offense.
Reed, who has said he does not remember any of the incident, has denied the charges.
"I think anyone who has eyes and ears and who has been in this courtroom knows that I'm not guilty," Reed told reporters in court Thursday. He said the verdict was clearly because he was a former Marine and asked the U.S. government to help him.
Reed's father has spent almost 11 months in Moscow trying to help his son, even riding out the coronavirus pandemic there. The family initially delayed going public, they said, because they believed a judge would see the inappropriateness of the charges and they feared making the case political.
Reed's father said the family believed it was possible Reed may have been targeted by a lower-level official seeking to gain plaudits from his superiors for detaining an American, rather than because of a direction from the Kremlin. But he said the fact a judge had approved the prosecution's request for such a severe sentence showed it was clearly "above the "local level."
"Again, at what level that was done and by who we have no idea," Joey Reed said. Outside the court, he made a plea to Russian President Vladimir Putin to look into the case and overturn it.
The U.S. Embassy in its statement did not link Reed's case to Whelan's or comment on why the court might have jailed Reed.
Reed's conviction raises the question though of whether Russia might seek to also use him alongside Whelan in negotiations.
Almost immediately after Whelan's conviction, Russia began raising the idea of trading him for two Russian citizens currently jailed in the U.S., according to Whelan's lawyers.
Russia has linked Whelan to two Russians in particular, Viktor Bout, a well-known arms dealer, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot convicted of large-scale drug smuggling. Both men have suspected links to Russian intelligence.
It is unclear whether the U.S. government would be willing to trade Whelan, who they view as an innocent tourist, for the two men, who were both convicted of serious crimes in an open court. Whelan's family have acknowledged doing so would set a dangerous precedent for foreign governments to take Americans hostage.
Whelan's lawyers and representatives for Yaroshenko and Bout have said the idea of a swap has been raised. U.S. officials have declined to comment publicly on the possibility of any trade.