January 15, 2019 / 1:29 PM / 4 months ago

Family of former U.S. marine held by Russia rejects reports of Russia visit

MOSCOW/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The brother of ex-U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is being held in Moscow on suspicion of spying, on Tuesday refuted a Russian media report that said his family planned to visit Russia to try to win his freedom.

FILE PHOTO: Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, appears in a photo provided by the Whelan family on January 1, 2019. Courtesy Whelan Family/Handout via REUTERS

“Those reports are false,” David Whelan, the ex-Marine’s twin brother, said in an email to Reuters. “Neither his parents nor his siblings are flying to Russia, and we have no plans to fly to Russia.”

The Interfax news agency on Tuesday had cited a lawyer for the Whelan family as saying that they would make such a visit.

Paul Whelan, 48, who also holds British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on Dec. 28. His family have said he is innocent and that he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

The FSB has opened a criminal case against Whelan but given no details of his alleged activities. In Russia, an espionage conviction carries a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years.

Intelligence experts have said that Moscow may have arrested Whelan in retaliation for the U.S. arrest of a Russian national, Maria Butina, who admitted last month to U.S. prosecutors that she had tried to infiltrate American conservative groups as an agent for Moscow.

A review of Whelan’s social media activity showed that he had online contact with more than 20 Russians with military backgrounds. Russian men with military education or a history of military service make up nearly half of Whelan’s more than 50 friends on VK, a popular Russian social network that resembles Facebook, the analysis by Reuters shows.

At least 12 of his friends received military education in Russia, according to open source information, and at least another 11 appear to have completed national service.

The arrest has further strained relations between Moscow and Washington, which have soured over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and subsequent economic sanctions and accusations of meddling in the U.S. presidential election.

Whelan lives in Novi, Michigan, according to public records. He is director of global security at BorgWarner, a U.S. auto parts maker based in Michigan.

Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow and Barbara Goldberg in New York, writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum

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