Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
When Trevor Reed traveled to Moscow last summer, it was to study Russian and spend time with his girlfriend Alina Tsybulnik, whom he hoped to marry in September.
But days before he was due to fly home to Texas, Tsybulnik's co-workers hosted a party that would end with the 29-year-old American spending a night at a Russian police station and, ultimately, standing trial on charges of violently assaulting the police officers who brought him there.
On July 29, a Moscow court is expected to issue its verdict in a case that has shaken Reed's family and prompted speculation that the former U.S. Marine has become a pawn in a geopolitical standoff between Russia and the United States.
Charged with the “use of violence dangerous to life and health against a representative of the authorities,” Reed has languished in detention since August 2019 and faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. When the final hearing in his case wrapped up at Golovinsky District Court on July 27, he told RFE/RL that he had lost 20 kilograms and was tired “all the time.” He hoped the ordeal would end soon.
“Based on the evidence in my case, I think it's clear what the outcome should be,” he said.
Reed claims to have no memory of what happened following the party on August 15, where he says he was encouraged to drink large quantities of vodka. But the events leading up to the police officers' arrival are subject to little dispute.
According to Tsybulnik, in the early hours of August 16 she asked to share a ride with two of her co-workers. On the way, Reed felt nauseous and tried to get out of the vehicle. When the driver pulled up beside the busy road, Reed began drunkenly pacing in dangerous proximity to oncoming traffic. Tsybulnik's co-worker called the police. She then drove off with another colleague, leaving Tsybulnik alone with Reed.
“I wouldn't have called the police myself,” Tsybulnik, 22, said in an interview with RFE/RL. She suspects law enforcement took a special interest in Reed on account of his nationality. “After all, he's an American, and we have a strange relationship with America right now.”
Inconsistencies and retractions
Two police officers arrived and took Reed in to sober up, telling Tsybulnik to come back in a few hours and pick him up. When she arrived at the police station around 9 a.m., she said, he was being questioned, without a lawyer or interpreter present, by two men who introduced themselves as employees of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's FBI equivalent. He was accused of endangering the lives of the policemen who brought him in, Tsybulnik was told, by yanking the driver's arm and elbowing another officer who tried to intervene.
But from the outset, the case against Reed has been marred by inconsistencies. Video evidence reviewed in court appeared to show no evidence that the police vehicle swerved as a result of Reed's actions, as alleged by the police officers. Speaking before the judge, the officers themselves have claimed to have no memory of key moments in the journey, have retracted parts of their statements on several occasions, and have failed to answer simple questions from Reed's defense team.
“Let's put it this way. Almost everything introduced in the trial, that's in the case, has been fairly well disputed,” said Reed's father, Joey Reed, who has attended every hearing in his son's trial. “We understand the nature of the judicial system here — it works differently to what we're used to. But even within this system, there just seems to be a lot of irregularities as to what's going on.”
The elder Reed traveled from Texas last September to be near his son, renting an apartment and riding out the height of the coronavirus pandemic in the Russian capital. He has sought to drum up media coverage and regularly updates a website he created and dedicated to Reed's case, where he points out flaws in the evidence and keeps a record of each court session. A clock on the home screen counts the time Reed has spent in a Russian jail.
Americans on trial
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has sent a Russian-speaking representative to each court hearing, but Ambassador John Sullivan has made few public remarks about his case.
“The United States Embassy has not visited my son in five months,” Joey Reed said. “Their only contact with him was a two-minute phone call last month.”
The embassy declined, via its spokeswoman Rebecca Ross, to comment on Reed's case.
Reed is among several Americans whom Russia has placed on trial in recent years on charges that their supporters, and in some cases the U.S. government, have said appear trumped-up. On April 22, speaking about Paul Whelan, another former U.S. Marine tried in Moscow this year, Sullivan said “he is foremost in my thoughts every day as I continue my service as ambassador, along with other Americans who have been detained — Michael Calvey and Trevor Reed.” Calvey, a Moscow-based investor, is under house arrest pending trial on fraud charges he disputes. Whelan was convicted of espionage, a charge he denies, and sentenced to 16 years in prison on June 15, in a ruling Sullivan called “a mockery of justice.”
In July 2019, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called on the United States to free Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving 20 years on a conviction of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine, and proposed a prisoner swap that would involve the release of a U.S. national held in Russia. Ryabkov did not specify whom he meant, but some took the comment as evidence that Moscow is using Americans like Reed as bargaining chips amid tensions with Washington. Viktor Bout, a Russian gunrunner whose arrest by U.S. authorities inspired the 2005 movie Lord Of War, is another Russian serving time in the United States whom Moscow has sought to repatriate.
The last major prisoner swap between the two countries was a decade ago, when Russia sent several prisoners including Sergei Skripal and the United States transferred 10 deep-cover agents operating in suburban America in a case that inspired the hit TV show The Americans.
Joey Reed plans to leave Russia if his son is sentenced to prison, and continue fighting for his release from the United States. “I'm sure the United States government will be involved,” he said. “And I will probably be spending a lot of time in Washington, D.C.”
Tsybulnik, a Moscow attorney specializing in criminal and international law, said Reed is ready to appeal a conviction before Russia's Supreme Court. If he's released, they will marry and seek to expedite her planned move to the United States.
The case against her partner of more than three years has changed her attitude not only to Russia's legal system, she said, but to her country as a whole.
“There is no evidence of a crime here. This person is not guilty. But they've been trying him for a year — a year he's spent in jail,” she said. “I no longer want to practice law in Russia. I'm ashamed. Ashamed for Russia's reputation.”
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