Russia puts ex-U.S. Marine on trial behind closed doors for alleged spying

FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, is escorted inside a court building in Moscow

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court began on Monday the trial of a former U.S. Marine charged with espionage, in a case that has strained already poor ties with the United States.

Paul Whelan, who turned 50 while in custody this month, was arrested by Federal Security Service agents in a hotel room on Dec. 28, 2018, and accused of spying, a charge he denies.

The U.S. national who also holds British, Canadian and Irish passports could be jailed for up to 20 years if found guilty.

Moscow says Whelan was caught red-handed with a computer flash drive containing classified information. He says he was set up in a sting operation and thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained holiday photos.

The trial will be held behind closed doors as it concerns classified information, a spokewoman for the Moscow District Court said. The court ruled at preliminary hearings on Monday that Whelan would be kept in custody until Sep. 13, she added.

The case, like that of Michael Calvey, a U.S. citizen charged with embezzlement in Russia, has been an irritant in Moscow's testy relations with Washington.

"#PaulWhelan has been held in Russia for almost 15 months, without evidence, without appropriate medical care, without even ONE phone call to his family," Rebecca Ross, a spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Moscow wrote on Twitter.

"Now is the time for a fair, transparent judicial process."

Whelan has used his appearances at hearings since his arrest to allege he has been ill treated by prison guards and also denied medical attention.

Russian authorities have dismissed his claims and also accused Whelan of faking health problems in custody to draw attention to his case.

The next hearing in the trial will be on March 30, the Interfax news agency reported.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Gareth Jones)