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US citizen charged with spying in Russia

January 3, 2019

A former US Marine in Moscow for a wedding has formally been charged with spying. There is speculation that he was arrested so Russia could trade him for one of its citizens accused of trying to influence US elections.

Paul Whelan
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Whelan Family

The former US Marine detained in Russia has been charged with espionage, the Interfax news agency said on Thursday. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

Paul Whelan, 48, was detained by Russia's FSB state security service in Moscow last Friday on suspicion of spying, in a case which threatens to aggravate diplomatic tensions with the United States.

The FSB opened a criminal case against Whelan but gave no details of his alleged espionage activities.

According to Interfax, the Russian authorities had brought formal charges against Whelan on Thursday, citing what it described as an informed source. 

Whelan's lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, declined to comment on the charges but told Reuters that under the terms of the arrest order, Whelan was expected to remain in custody in Moscow until at least February 28.

"I consider his detention and arrest baseless. It's based on investigators' supposition that he will hinder the investigation process. We are asking for bail instead," Zherebenkov said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that the United States has asked Russia to explain Whelan's arrest and would demand his immediate return if it determines his detention is inappropriate.

Whelan's family has said that he was visiting Moscow for the wedding of a retired Marine and is innocent of the espionage charges against him.

Possible exchange

Zherebenkov said Whelan, who is being held at the Lefortovo detention facility in Moscow, was "feeling positive." He added that a translator was explaining the legal procedures to him.

"All his rights and all international principles are being fully followed," Zherebenkov said.

Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was "possible, even likely" that Putin had ordered Whelan's arrest in order to set up an exchange for Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who pleaded guilty on December 13 to acting as an agent to influence conservative groups in the United States.

Russia says Butina was forced to make a false confession about being a Russian agent.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Whelan's detention.

av/rt (dpa, AP, AFP)

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