WASHINGTON: An American ex-Marine arrested in Moscow for alleged espionage is innocent, his family said Tuesday.
The detention of Paul Whelan marked the latest in a series of espionage cases between Russia and the West.
“We have read reports of the arrest in Moscow of Paul Whelan, our son and brother,” said a statement posted on Twitter by David Whelan, who said he is the brother of Paul.
“Paul is a retired Marine and was visiting Moscow to attend a wedding,” it continued, adding that he stopped being in communication with his family on Friday, “which was very much out of character for him even when he was traveling.”
The family added they learned of the arrest through the media on Monday morning and had been in touch with US lawmakers, as well as the State Department.
“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being. His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” the statement said.
Russia’s FSB domestic security service said the American was arrested on Friday “while carrying out an act of espionage.”
A criminal case had been opened under Article 276 of the Russian Criminal Code which allows for prison sentences of up to 20 years, the FSB said in a statement.
Whelan’s employer, US-based automotive components supplier BorgWarner, said that he is the firm’s director of global security.
“He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan and at other company locations around the world,” the company said in a statement, adding it has been in contact with relevant US authorities “in order to help our employee and the US government.”
Born 48 years ago in Canada, Whelan had gone to Moscow for the marriage of a fellow ex-Marine with a Russian woman, his brother David told US media.
Speaking to Canada’s CBC News, David Whelan said “there’s no chance” the Russian accusations against his brother are accurate.
“Paul has a law enforcement background. He is a Marine. He has worked in corporate security, and he is very aware of both the rule of law and the risks of traveling in countries that may have risks to travelers,” the brother said.
“There’s no chance that he would have taken those sorts of risks while on a trip to Moscow, let alone to break any law but to break the espionage act.”
The US State Department said Monday it had been formally notified by Russia’s foreign ministry and was seeking access to the detained American.
“Russia’s obligations under the Vienna Convention require them to provide consular access. We have requested this access and expect Russian authorities to provide it,” the State Department said.
“There is apparently a window of about 72 hours which has to pass before anybody can see Paul and that time hasn’t passed as of today,” Whelan’s brother told CBC.
“So we are hoping tomorrow that we will hear about Paul’s condition and his well-being.”
The arrest came after President Vladimir Putin accused Western nations of using espionage cases to try to undermine an increasingly powerful Russia.
US intelligence services have accused Moscow of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller has charged 25 Russians — including members of the GRU military intelligence — and three Russian companies for that alleged interference but they have not been arrested.
In December, Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty in a Federal Court in Washington to acting as an illegal foreign agent.
Butina faces up to six months in prison, followed by likely deportation.