WASHINGTON – U.S. diplomats were allowed to visit detained American businessman Paul Whelan in Russia on Wednesday, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration would demand his release if the charges against him are unfounded.
“We’ve made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he’s been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate we will demand his immediate return,” Pompeo told reporters during a trip to Brazil.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that Whelan had met with American consular officials. The State Department, which is operating with minimal staff because of the partial government shutdown, did not immediately respond to questions about the visit with Whelan, in which embassy officials would likely focus on determining his heath status and helping him find an attorney.
Russian officials arrested Whelan, a 48-year-old Michigan security executive and ex-Marine, on Monday and charged him with espionage. The Russian Federal Security Service said its investigation into Whelan was ongoing but he could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of spying.
Whelan’s family has said the charges are baseless.
“I just can’t see him breaking laws in America, let alone going to a country that might be more difficult to navigate if he broke the law, and certainly not breaking a law of espionage,” his twin brother, David Whelan, told the Detroit Free Press.
David Whelan, who now lives in Canada, said they grew up in the Ann Arbor area. He said Paul Whelan served a couple of tours in Iraq with the Marines and then worked as a police officer. He is not married and does not have children, David Whelan said. Paul Whelan is now director of global security for automotive component supplier BorgWarner, based in Michigan.
David Whelan described his brother as “a very kind person. He’s very generous with his time; he’s funny. He’s a gregarious sort of person.”
In a statement released Tuesday, family members said Paul Whelan traveled to Moscow to attend a friend’s wedding. They contacted the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and congressional offices after not hearing from him.
“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being. His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” the statement says.
Whelan’s arrest comes amid increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
Last month, Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an agent for the Kremlin – and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. She has been in jail since her arrest in July. The Kremlin has denied that Butina is a spy.
In November, President Donald Trump canceled a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, citing Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships and their crew members.
Contributing: John Bacon, Kristen Jordan Shamus and JC Reindl.
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