An American corporate security executive arrested in Russia on espionage charges was in Moscow to attend a wedding and is not a spy, his family said Tuesday.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) announced Monday that Paul Whelan, 48, was detained Friday “while on a spy mission.” The FSB said the investigation was continuing but that Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.
Whelan’s family released a statement saying they learned of the retired U.S. Marine’s arrest through media reports.
The family says Whelan had not contacted them Friday, which was “out of character for him even when he was traveling.” Family members immediately contacted the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and congressional offices.
“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.
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Whelan serves as director of global security for automotive component supplier BorgWarner. The company also learned of the arrest through media reports, spokeswoman Kathy Graham said.
“BorgWarner has been in contact with the relevant U.S. Government authorities in order to help our employee and the U.S. government,” Graham said.
The U.S. State Department confirmed it had been notified of the arrest by Russian authorities.
“Russia’s obligations under the Vienna Convention require them to provide consular access,” the State Department said in a statement. “We have requested this access and expect Russian authorities to provide it.”
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, did not immediately respond to a request for information from USA TODAY. He did, however, tell CNN that Paul Whelan lives in Michigan but was born in Canada to British parents.
“Knowing that he’s not dead, it weirdly really helps,” David Whelan told CNN. “When we couldn’t get ahold of him initially, we were worried, and we are still worried now, but at least we know he is alive.”
The news came as Russian President Vladimir Putin released a holiday greeting to President Donald Trump that “reaffirmed that Russia is open to dialogue” with the United States.
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.
U.S.-Russian relations have been battered by controversy despite Trump’s frequent praise of Putin. Scores of Russian diplomats were expelled this year after the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in Britain that was linked to the Kremlin.
All this while special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election has brought scrutiny on communications between Trump’s inner circle and Russian operatives.