US ambassador Jon Huntsman meets Paul Whelan, American held by Russia on spying charges

  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says if the detention is not appropriate then the US will ‘demand his immediate return’
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2019, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 5:08am

US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman has met with Paul Whelan, an American detained in Moscow on allegations of spying, a US State Department spokesman said on Wednesday.

“Ambassador Huntsman expressed his support for Mr Whelan and offered the embassy’s assistance,” the spokesman said in a statement. Whelan’s family has rejected Russia’s allegations.

In advance of Huntsman’s visit, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier on Wednesday that the US had “made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges and come to understand what it is he has been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate we will demand his immediate return”.

Whelan, a former Marine who is head of global security for a Michigan-based auto parts supplier, was arrested on Friday. In announcing the arrest three days later, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said he was caught “during an espionage operation”, but it gave no details.

Whelan, 48, was in Moscow to attend a wedding when he disappeared, his brother David Whelan said on Tuesday.

Whelan’s family said in a statement David Whelan posted on Twitter, “We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being. 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 in an interview that 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 about 5pm, and 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 State Department said on Monday that it had received formal notification from the Russian Foreign Ministry of the arrest and was pushing for consular access.

David Whelan said he has no idea why his brother was targeted by the Russian security services. Paul Whelan had travelled 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 is a spy,” David Whelan told CNN on Wednesday.

Paul Whelan did multiple tours in Iraq with the 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,” company spokeswoman Kathy Graham said in a statement.

She said that BorgWarner does not have any facilities in Russia.

Accused Russian agent Maria Butina, who ‘tried to infiltrate NRA gun lobby’, pleads guilty in US to conspiracy

Paul Whelan previously worked for Kelly Services, an office staffing consultancy 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, including the National Rifle Association, as Donald Trump was seeking the presidency.

Butina pleaded guilty in December to a conspiracy charge as part of a deal with federal prosecutors.

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.

Additional reporting by Reuters