LONDON (Reuters) -Former U.S. marine Paul Whelan has been attacked by another inmate in a Russian prison while serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges, Russia's prison service said on Wednesday, after Whelan's brother publicised the incident.
Whelan, who denies spying on Russia, was punched in the face and forced to defend himself at a sewing workshop in a high security penal colony in Russia's Mordovia region southeast of Moscow, his brother Dave Whelan said in a statement.
"A new prisoner blocked part of the production line and Paul asked him to move out of the way. After repeated requests, the prisoner hit Paul in the face, breaking Paul's glasses in the process, and attempted to hit him a second time," Dave Whelan said.
"Paul stood up to block the second hit and other prisoners intervened to prevent the prisoner continuing the attack on Paul."
Dave Whelan said the incident took place on Tuesday afternoon. He thought his brother was a target because he was an American and anti-American sentiment was "not uncommon among the other prisoners," he said.
President Vladimir Putin says Russia is locked in what he casts as an existential struggle for a new world order with the U.S.-led West, which he accuses of wanting to plunder his country's vast natural resources and to dismember it.
The Mordovia regional prison service confirmed to the Interfax news agency that the attack on Whelan had happened. It said guards had taken immediate action to stop "the illegal actions."
Both men had been taken to the medical bay, where Whelan was found to have suffered an abrasion beneath one of his eyes, it was cited as saying.
There was CCTV footage of the incident and the prison service was looking into it further before submitting a report to the police, Interfax reported.
It quoted an unnamed person "familiar with the situation" as saying that Whelan had been struck by "a convict from Turkey over political disagreements".
Arrested in 2018 in Russia, Paul Whelan was convicted of espionage in 2020 and handed a 16-year sentence.
Whelan and the U.S. government have denied he is a spy. Washington has designated him as "wrongfully detained" amid speculation that he and Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist accused of spying, will one day be freed as part of a prisoner exchange between the two countries.
Gershkovich, who on Tuesday had his pre-trial detention extended until the end of January, denies the spying charges he faces.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn, Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Timothy Heritage)