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Case Of US Man Held As Spy In Russia Stalls Without Answers

Paul Whelan
Yuri Kochetkov
/
EPA-EFE/REX

The arrest of a Michigan corporate security executive on espionage allegations in Russia seemed to his family like a horrible mistake, a misunderstanding that could be quickly resolved with help from the U.S. government.

But it hasn't worked out that way.

Six months later, and despite extensive U.S. efforts on his behalf, Paul Whelan is entangled in a Russian legal system so opaque that the evidence against him remains unknown. His family has had only limited contact with him and no idea when, or if, he will be released.

"Without any information, we can't have any certainty that anything is happening at all," said his brother David Whelan in an interview with The Associated Press.

The Whelan case, which at first seemed to many like a possible Moscow tit-for-tat response to the arrest of Russian gun-rights activist Maria Butina in the United States, has become a lesson on the limits of American power to help a U.S. citizen charged with a serious crime in a hostile country.

The 49-year-old man faces a sentence of 20 years on a charge of espionage.

Whelan's case has received extensive media coverage since his Dec. 28 arrest outside a Moscow hotel. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. has visited him in prison and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has demanded his release. Russian human rights groups have said they will look into his complaints of abusive treatment inside in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison, a 130-year-old facility noted for strict conditions.

None of that has seemed to produce any results. A Russian court late last month extended his detention until at least Aug. 29 while the espionage case proceeds against him.

Whelan's family, meanwhile, insists the U.S. could do more to help him.

David, who has become a de facto spokesman from his home near Toronto, wants his brother to receive the assistance and support the U.S. government gives to American hostages through the FBI-led Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell.

"I think Paul's case falls into a gap in American law in how resources are applied for American citizens who find themselves wrongfully detained in foreign countries," David Whelan said.

The fusion cell was created by the Obama administration in 2015 after a series of horrific beheadings of Westerners by Islamic State militants. It was intended to streamline resources for hostage takings by terrorists or pirates, coordinating diplomatic, law enforcement or military rescue efforts and offering intelligence briefings for loved ones of detainees.

But it doesn't cover cases of Americans accused of violating another nation's laws, where a foreign nation has acknowledged the detention. Those are handled diplomatically by the State Department, which through its consular affairs bureau visits detained citizen and ensures appropriate medical care but cannot give legal advice or free someone from custody.

"It's real important that we don't lump cases like Paul and call them hostages," said Robert Saale, the former director of the cell. "In Paul Whelan's case, it's not against the law for the Russian government to arrest him and charge him with something."

David Whelan said he's grateful for assistance that the family has received. He just thinks the government could do more. He said he's not necessarily asking for his brother to be classified as a hostage but rather to be acknowledged as unlawfully detained. The family's Washington lawyer, Ryan Fayhee, said that could happen if the FBI investigates and establishes once and for all that the allegations are baseless.

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