US man jailed in Russia for 12 years on drug charges

Robert Woodland in a Moscow court
Robert Woodland in court in Moscow [EPA]

A US citizen has been sentenced to 12.5 years at a maximum security penal colony by a Russian court after being convicted on drugs charges.

Robert Woodland, 32, was detained in Moscow in January and accused by prosecutors of seeking to sell a large quantity of methadone. His lawyer told the Reuters news agency that he had partially confessed to the charges.

Mr Woodland, who was born in Russia and adopted when he was two, had travelled to the country in 2020 to find his birth mother. His journey was documented by a Russian reality TV programme.

He is the latest US citizen to be imprisoned in the country, with some Western officials suggesting the Kremlin is "hoarding" Americans to trade for allies and operatives imprisoned abroad.

In a statement released after Mr Woodland's conviction on Thursday, Russian prosecutors said he had been caught while packaging a large quantity of narcotics at an apartment in the Russian capital.

They claimed he had been working with a large-scale criminal group and had transported 50-grams of the drug from a pick-up point outside the city.

His lawyer, Stanislav Kshevitsky, had initially denied the charges, saying officials had presented "no evidence" of drug sales before the court.

But he told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday that Mr Woodland had confessed to some of the allegations against him. It remains unclear which charges he has accepted.

Footage carried by state media in Russia showed Mr Woodland sitting inside a glass cage in court, staring impassively ahead as the verdict against him was read out.

Russian media reported that Mr Woodland decided to remain in the country after meeting his mother in 2020 and worked as an English teacher near Moscow. His tearful reunion with his mother was broadcast on state television at the time.

The Interfax news agency said he holds US and Russian citizenship.

At least a dozen US nationals, including journalists and active duty soldiers, are currently being held in Russian prisons and penal colonies.

Among those is Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter detained over a year ago on espionage charges which he denies. The US considers him to be "wrongfully detained".

Western officials have long suspected that Moscow is seeking to detain Western citizens to use as bargaining chips in prisoner swaps. US law prohibits the payment of ransoms to terror groups, but successive administrations have been willing to offer concessions to other states to secure the release of Americans.

This is what happened to Brittney Griner, who was released at the end of 2022 in a prisoner swap with the US in return for the controversial Russian arms dealer Victor Bout.

While the US state department said earlier this year that it was aware of Mr Woodland's case, it avoided commenting directly on the allegations.

Instead, it issued a statement saying it “has no greater priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas".

US officials have repeatedly warned US citizens in Russia to leave the country, citing the risk of wrongful arrest and harassment by authorities.