The Russian Federation formally charged US citizen Paul Whelan with espionage Thursday, according to Russian news agency Interfax. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Whelan on December 28.
Under Article 276 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, espionage is punishable by 10-20 years in prison. The family of Whelan, a retired US Marine, claim that he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking from Brazil, said:
With respect to Mr. Whelan, who is being held, we are hopeful within the next hours we will get consular access to see him and get a chance to learn more. We’ve made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he’s been accused of, and if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation allowed US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman to meet with Whelan.
The arrest comes amid heightened tensions between the US and Russia. Recently, Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent in United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
EARLIER: American Arrested In Moscow: Family Refutes Spy Claims
A man who says he is the brother of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan — who was arrested in Moscow last week on suspicion of spying — is proclaiming his brother’s innocence and providing more detail to an opaque case.
On Tuesday, David Whelan tweeted a family statement, saying Paul Whelan was in Moscow to attend a wedding and that the family grew concerned after not hearing from the retired U.S. Marine on Friday, “which was very much out of character for him even when he was traveling.”
Three days passed before they learned of his arrest from media reports on Monday, the family statement said, adding they have been in touch with their congressional representatives, the U.S. Embassy and the State Department.
“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,” the family said. “His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.”
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said in a brief statement Monday that Whelan was arrested while on a “spy mission” and that an investigation is ongoing.
Paul Whelan works for BorgWarner, an American automotive parts supplier, the company confirmed.
“Whelan currently serves as the company’s director, global security,” the company said. “He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan and at other company locations around the world.”
BorgWarner says it has been in contact with the U.S. government and is offering its full cooperation “in order to help our employee and the U.S. government.”
The Washington Post reports that the supplier has business contracts in Russia. And while Whelan had traveled to Russia on business trips before, his brother told The Wall Street Journal that the former police officer “was not in Russia on any work-related travel this visit.”
Whelan’s arrest comes two weeks after Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington, D.C., to conspiring to act as a clandestine foreign agent, raising the specter that Moscow could be engaging in a tit-for-tat response.
Butina is likely facing up to six months in prison when she is sentenced later this year. If convicted of espionage, Whelan could be facing up to 20 years in prison.
“[I]t’s worth pointing out that Ms. Butina is convicted — admitted to being a foreign agent, not conducting espionage per se,” Maynes reported. “President Putin in a year-end press conference was asked about this [and] suggested there would be no eye-for-an-eye over the Butina incident in the sense that she was not guilty of espionage.”
The State Department has declined to give details about Whelan’s case, or even to confirm his identity, citing privacy issues.
“We are aware of the detention of a U.S. citizen by Russian authorities,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement on Monday.
“Russia’s obligations under the Vienna Convention require them to provide consular access,” the statement said. “We have requested this access and expect Russian authorities to provide it.”
Whelan’s family told the Post that a representative from the U.S. government would visit him within a three-day window.