Family of American held in Russia for 'spying' says he's innocent

Brother of Paul Whelan says the retired marine was in Moscow for a wedding.

    Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow on Friday [Courtesy Whelan Family/Reuters]
    Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow on Friday [Courtesy Whelan Family/Reuters]

    The brother of a US citizen arrested in Russia on espionage charges said on Tuesday that his brother is innocent and was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

    Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow on Friday. The Russian Federal Security Service, in announcing the arrest three days later, said Whelan was caught "during an espionage operation", but gave no details.

    "We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being," his brother, David Whelan, said in a statement posted on Twitter. "His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected."

    The Russian spying charges carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

    David Whelan said the family last heard from Paul, a retired marine, on Friday, "which was very much out of character for him, even when he was travelling".

    The State Department said on Monday it had received formal notification from the Russian Foreign Ministry of the arrest and was pushing for consular access. The department did not identify Whelan at the time or provide any information about the case, citing "privacy considerations".

    CNN reported Paul Whelan is the director of global security for BorgWarner, a Michigan-based automotive components supplier. David Whelan told CNN that his brother had been to Russia many times for work and personal business.

    The family has contacted congressional representatives, the US embassy and the State Department, David Wheland said.

    The arrest comes as US-Russian ties are severely strained, in part over Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election

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    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. 

    Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed the case is fabricated and that Butina entered the guilty plea because of the threat of a long prison sentence.

    SOURCE: News agencies