The brother of a former US Marine held in Russia on an apparent espionage charge fears he could be kept in jail for up to two years and has urged the British Government to “keep an eye on him”.
Paul Whelan, a 48-year-old who has UK citizenship, was arrested in Moscow last week, prompting Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to warn the Kremlin not to use Britons as diplomatic pawns.
There has been speculation he could be used to barter for the release of a Russian citizen jailed in the US after she admitted acting as a secret agent for the Kremlin.
My brother was detained by the Russian government on Friday as an alleged spy. While the law library + info focus will remain, you may see an increase in off-message topics until we get him safely home. pic.twitter.com/2HIF1UmS1b
— David Whelan (@davidpwhelan) January 1, 2019
Mr Whelan has British citizenship through his parents, but is also a citizen of Ireland, Canada and the US.
Speaking to the Press Association from Newmarket, Ontario, his twin brother David said: “In the short-term the thing we would appreciate most from the UK Government and are certain that it’s going to happen – we’re not questioning any will on their part after Mr Hunt’s statement – is that they will keep an eye on Paul and assist the US and the other two countries to maintain him in good health until we can get him home.”
Mr Whelan has made repeated calls on the US to put pressure on Russia to secure his brother’s immediate release.
The former serviceman is the subject of an investigation by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) over espionage charges, which carry punishment of up to 20 years in jail, according to the Kremlin-backed Tass news agency.
“I don’t think anybody has rose-coloured glasses about this,” his brother said.
“We’ve heard a variety of timelines and I think we’re all looking at months for certain and perhaps even a couple of years, and we’re not thinking it’s necessarily going to be a short-term stay, but we are certainly hoping it will be as short as possible.”
Mr Hunt said the UK is giving Mr Whelan “every support we can” and said Moscow should not use people as pieces in “diplomatic chess games”.
The arrest in December of Mr Whelan, who lives in the state of Michigan, came after Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the US last month.
She admitted conspiring to infiltrate the US gun rights movement to collect intelligence on conservative political groups as Donald Trump rose to power.
On Saturday, Russian news agencies quoted the nation’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying it is too early to talk of “the possibility of exchanges” as Mr Whelan is yet to be formally charged.
Interfax said he added that “there is no connection” with the case and any Russian citizen in the US.
Mr Whelan said his brother’s arrest appeared to be “very arbitrary” and there was nothing to indicate he was a spy.
“It’s the arbitrariness that I’m most concerned about. I realise that there are geopolitical aspects to this that we can’t really know about; what’s happening at that level,” he said.
“(But) it really does feel like wrong person wrong time which doesn’t help anybody.
“Our family is tending to focus on getting him out anything we can do to make his stay as least-awful as possible and not worry so much about the rationale for what caused it.”
The ex-serviceman was in Moscow to help plan a fellow former Marine’s wedding and had visited Russia on three previous occasions, according to his brother.
His detention comes amid strained diplomatic tensions between the UK and Russia in the wake of the nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury last year.