Paul Whelan, former US Marine accused of spying by Russia, is a citizen of four countries
- A source says Paul Whelan collected passports as ‘a game’, and his family denies he is a spy
- Besides US citizenship, Whelan has Canadian, Irish and British passports, with all four countries seeking consular access to him in Russian detention
The international links to an American charged with espionage in Russia widened Friday as Ireland became the fourth nation to acknowledge Paul Whelan as a citizen and seek consular access.
The expanding passport list for Whelan, a 48-year-old former Marine arrested last week in Moscow, has boosted the complexities and diplomatic fallout for Moscow.
In addition to demands by the Trump administration for greater details on Russia’s claims against Whelan, three other nations are now in the mix and offering potential assistance.
Whelan also carried passports from Canada, where he was born, as well as from Britain and Ireland. Whalen obtained the two European passports through family lineage.
Both Britain and Ireland are now seeking consular access to Whelan, who is being held in a detention facility on the outskirts of Moscow.
Britain and Russia’s relationship sharply deteriorated last year after a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, was poisoned in England with a nerve agent and spent months recovering. British authorities have blamed Russia for carrying out the attack – an assertion Moscow denies.
The minimal amount of information provided by Russia – which is on holiday until after the Russian Orthodox Church marks Christmas on Monday – only adds to the intrigue. There has been no word from the Kremlin on Whelan’s arrest.
But many in the West question whether the arrest was in retaliation to US conviction of Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina.
In December, Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate US conservative groups. Butina, 30, is the first Russian national to be convicted of seeking to influence US policy in the run-up to the 2016 election by acting as a foreign agent.
Shortly before Butina pleaded guilty, Putin said she was not known to any of his spy agencies. The Foreign Ministry has gone to great lengths to paint Butina as a political prisoner, notably by launching a wide-ranging social media campaign.
“We don’t agree with individuals being used in diplomatic chess games,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Sky News.
“Because it is desperately worrying, not just for the individual but their families, and we are extremely worried about him and his family as we hear this news.”
Russian authorities have not said what Whelan is accused of doing beyond the relatively broad charge of espionage which, if convicted, could land him between 10 and 20 years behind bars.
A person familiar with Whelan’s case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity surrounding the situation, said he has a total of four passports.
“He collected them as a game. There was an ongoing competition with his sister to see who could get the most,” the person said.
Whelan’s family has maintained he is innocent, and that the Michigan resident and former policeman was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding when he was arrested by members of Russia’s security services in an upscale hotel not far from the Kremlin.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said Washington would demand Whelan’s release if his detention is not “appropriate.” Whelan was visited by the Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador to Moscow, inside his cell.