The U.S. ambassador to Russia was allowed to meet Wednesday with a Michigan man imprisoned in Moscow on suspicion of espionage, the first contact U.S. officials have had with him since he was arrested last week at a hotel.
Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who is now ambassador in Moscow, spoke with Paul Whelan at Lefortovo Detention Facility, a notorious prison that has held many spies and political prisoners in spartan conditions. State Department officials said Huntsman offered Whelan the embassy’s support and spoke by phone with Whelan’s family afterward.
But many details of Whelan’s arrest and condition since then remain unknown. It is not even clear whether he has been formally charged with espionage. The State Department declined to say how long Huntsman spent with Whelan, whether their visit was in private or in the presence of prison authorities.
The visit came a few hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he expected officials from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to be given access to Whelan within hours. Pompeo said they need to learn more about why Whelan was detained last Friday.
Speaking to reporters in Brasilia, where he attended the inauguration of Brazil’s new president, Pompeo also said the United States will demand Whelan’s release if it is determined that his arrest was unjust.
“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,” he said.
U.S. officials are concerned about the delay between his arrest and the consular visit, believing it violates the time frame dictated by the Vienna Convention. Russian officials first announced his arrest on Monday, three days after he was picked up, and the ensuing news accounts were his family’s first notice of what had happened to him.
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Whelan, 48, a former Marine, was in Moscow last week for the wedding of a fellow Marine on Dec. 28, his family has said, the same day he was detained by Russia’s domestic security service.
“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,” his family said in a statement. “His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.”
Whelan is the corporate security director for BorgWarner, an automotive parts supplier based in Auburn Hills, Mich. He has visited Russia several times and is said to speak passable Russian.
Relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated over a series of events, including its aggression toward Ukraine as well as Russian interference in elections in the United States and other democracies around the world.
The arrest of Maria Butina, who confessed to being a Russian agent, has raised suspicions that Whelan’s detention is payback or an attempt to arrange a prisoner swap. If convicted, Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison.
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Ferris-Rotman reported from Moscow.