Family of American arrested in Russia on spy charges fears for his safety
MOSCOW — The family of an American arrested in Russia on espionage charges said on Tuesday that he is innocent and that they fear for his safety.
Paul Whelan, a 48-year-old retired Marine, was detained last week by Russia’s domestic security services while he was in Moscow for what they described as a “spy mission.”
“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,” his family said in a statement. “His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.”
Whelan’s twin brother, David, said Paul was in Moscow for a wedding of a fellow Marine, which took place at an upscale hotel in central Moscow on Dec. 28, the day he was detained.
“It is inconceivable to me that he would have done anything to break the law in Russia,” David Whelan told The Post.
By Russian law, foreigners found guilty of spying on Russia face between 10 and 20 years in jail.
A member of the U.S. government should have visited Whelan in detention by now, according to Russia’s obligations under the Vienna Convention, which dictates that consular access must be provided within a 72-hour window from the time of arrest.
But the U.S. government shutdown may have hindered this process, said a person familiar with Whelan’s case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.
While U.S. embassies are not closed during the shutdown, they are working with reduced staff. The source added that it could take months before the case is resolved.
Whelan’s arrest comes as tensions between Washington and Moscow continue to escalate over a range of issues from election meddling, the crises in Syria and Ukraine and the poisoning of a Russian former spy in Britain.
Whelan works as the corporate security director for BorgWarner, an automotive parts supplier based in Auburn Hills, Mich., that has business contracts in Russia.
While a fairly regular visitor to Russia on business, it appears Whelan was most likely in the country this time on a purely personal trip. “We’re almost certain he is not there on BorgWarner business,” the person familiar with the case said. “BorgWarner has reached out to the U.S. government to do their best to learn about this situation, and bring Paul home.”
According to Whelan’s brother and Russian acquaintances reached by The Post, Whelan has been visiting Russia since 2007, when he was a Marine staff sergeant serving in Iraq and traveled to Moscow during a break from duty.
Several Russian acquaintances described Whelan as a friendly man who greatly appreciated Russia and had a basic command of the language.
An acquaintance in St. Petersburg said the pair had made plans to meet in that city around Jan. 1, but contact with the American abruptly stopped on the day of his arrest.
The timing of Whelan’s arrest — coming weeks after Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina pleaded guilty to Kremlin interference in the U.S. — has raised questions about a potential swap. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty.
The arrest and guilty plea by Butina, 30, has become a sharp thorn in the side of U.S.-Russian relations. The first Russian national to be convicted of seeking to influence U.S. policy in the 2016 election campaign, Moscow has gone to great lengths to paint Butina as a political prisoner.
Source: Washington Post