The US ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, has visited a former marine in a Moscow prison where he is being held on espionage charges, the state department has confirmed. Paul Whelan, who is head of global security for a Michigan-based car parts supplier, was detained in Russia on Friday. In announcing the arrest three days…
The US ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, has visited a former marine in a Moscow prison where he is being held on espionage charges, the state department has confirmed.
Paul Whelan, who is head of global security for a Michigan-based car parts supplier, was detained in Russia on Friday. In announcing the arrest three days later, the Russian Federal Security Service said he was caught “during an espionage operation”, but gave no details.
Whelan, 48, was in Moscow to attend a wedding when he suddenly disappeared, his brother David Whelan said on Tuesday.
A state department spokesperson said that Ambassador Huntsman had visited Whelan on Wednesday in the Lefortovo detention facility, a former KGB prison in Moscow.
“Ambassador Huntsman expressed his support for Mr Whelan and offered the embassy’s assistance,” the spokesperson said, adding that Huntsman had subsequently phoned Whelan’s family.
The state department also said it had “expressed our concern about the delay in consular access through diplomatic channels”.
The US has “made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges and come to understand what it is he’s been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate we will demand his immediate return”, said the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, during a visit to Brazil.
David Whelan told the Guardian: “Secretary Pompeo’s statement was a good start to the day.”
In an earlier statement on his brother’s disappearance, he said: “We noticed that he was not in communication on the 28th, which was very much out of character for him even when he was travelling.”
The family found out about the arrest on Monday.
“We are deeply concerned for his safety and wellbeing. His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” David Whelan said.
In another interview, he added his brother had been to Russia several times, so when a fellow former marine was planning a wedding in Moscow with a Russian woman he was asked to go along to help out.
The morning of his arrest, he had taken a group of wedding guests on a tour of the Kremlin museums. The last time anyone heard from him was at about 5pm and then he failed to show up that evening for the wedding, his brother said.
“It was extraordinarily out of character,” he said.
The family feared he had been mugged or was in a car accident, David Whelan said, and it was when searching the internet on Monday that he learned of the arrest.
“I was looking for any stories about dead Americans in Moscow, so in a way it was better than finding out that he had died,” he said.
The spying charges carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
David Whelan said he has no idea why his brother was targeted by the Russian security services. Paul Whelan had traveled to Russia in the past for work and to visit friends he had met on social networks, his brother said.
“I don’t think there’s any chance that he’s a spy,” David Whelan told CNN on Wednesday.
Paul Whelan did multiple tours in Iraq with the US Marine Corps, his brother said. He now lives in Novi, Michigan, and is director of global security for BorgWarner, where he has worked since early 2017.
“He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and at other company locations around the world,” a company spokeswoman, Kathy Graham, said in a statement.
She said BorgWarner did not have any facilities in Russia.
Paul Whelan previously worked for Kelly Services, which does maintain offices in Russia, his brother said.
The arrest comes as US-Russian ties are severely strained, in part over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
A Russian gun rights activist, Maria Butina, is in US custody after admitting she acted as a secret agent for the Kremlin in trying to infiltrate conservative US political groups as Donald Trump was seeking the presidency. She pleaded guilty in December to a conspiracy charge as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has claimed that the case is fabricated and that Butina entered the guilty plea because of the threat of a long prison sentence.