Russia extends detention of ex-U.S. Marine accused of spying

Former U.S. marine Paul Whelan who is being held on suspicion of spying talks with his lawyers Vladimir Zherebenkov and Olga Kralova, as he stands in the courtroom cage after a ruling regarding extension of his detention, in Moscow, Russia, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

By Tom Balmforth and Alexander Reshetnikov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Friday ruled that Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying, should be held in a pre-trial detention facility for a further three months to give investigators more time to look into his case.

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 and accused of espionage, a charge he denies. If found guilty, he could be imprisoned for up to 20 years.

The case has put further strain on already poor U.S.-Russia relations as has that of another detained American, private equity chief Michael Calvey.

Russia’s Federal Security Service detained Whelan after an acquaintance handed him a flash drive containing classified information. Whelan’s lawyer says his client was misled.

Whelan had met the same person in the town of Sergiev Possad in May last year where they visited the town’s monastery and other tourist sites, the lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told reporters on Friday.

When Whelan returned to Russia again in December to attend a wedding, the same acquaintance unexpectedly turned up and gave him a flash drive containing what Whelan thought were photographs of the earlier trip, the lawyer said.

“Paul and I consider this was a provocation and a crime by his acquaintance,” said Zherebenkov, saying Whelan had known the man, whom he did not name, for several years.

Whelan on Friday appeared in court in a cage and looked downcast when he spoke briefly to reporters before masked security officials cut him off.

“I could do with care packages, food, things like that, letters from home,” Whelan said.

The court on Friday said Whelan would be held in pre-trial detention until May 28, extending an earlier ruling to keep him in custody until Feb. 28.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow said a consular official had visited Whelan in custody on Thursday.

It said, however, that it was unable to provide further information as Whelan had not been allowed by investigators to sign a privacy act waiver (PAW) that would legally allow the U.S. government to release information about the case.

“In every other instance, we have been able to obtain a signed PAW, but in Mr. Whelan’s case, the Investigative Committee is not allowing this to happen. Why is this case any different?” embassy spokeswoman Andrea Kalan wrote on Twitter.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Maxim Rodionov; editing by Andrew Osborn)

Ex-U.S. marine held in Russia for spying was misled, says lawyer

Former U.S. marine Paul Whelan, who was detained by Russia's FSB security service on suspicion of spying, looks out of a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The lawyer for a former U.S. Marine accused of spying by Russia said on Tuesday that his client had been misled before his arrest and believed that a thumb drive handed to him in a hotel room had contained holiday snaps rather than secret information.

Russia’s Federal Security Service detained Paul Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28.

Whelan appeared in a Moscow court on Tuesday, where a judge rejected a release on bail. If found guilty of espionage, he could be jailed for up to 20 years.

Whelan, who denies the charges, was detained after receiving a thumb drive containing a list of all the employees of a secret Russian state agency, the Russian online news portal Rosbalt.ru reported this month.

Rosbalt cited an unnamed Russian intelligence source as saying that Whelan had been spying for 10 years, using the internet to identify targets from whom he could obtain information and that the list he was caught with had long been of interest to U.S. spies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to support that version of events, later telling reporters Whelan had been “caught red-handed” carrying out “specific illegal actions” in his hotel room.

But Vladimir Zherebenkov, Whelan’s lawyer, said on Tuesday that his client had accepted the information unknowingly.

“Paul was actually meant to receive information from an individual that was not classified,” Zherebenkov told reporters.

“These were cultural things, a trip to a cathedral, Paul’s holiday … photographs. But as it turned out, it (the thumb drive) contained classified information.”

The lawyer said Whelan had not been able to see what was on the thumb drive because he had been detained before he had a chance to do so.

Wearing a blue shirt and dark trousers, he looked calm but somber as he stood inside a glass cage in the courtroom.

The hearing was closed to reporters, but his lawyer said afterward that Whelan had made a 15-minute speech rejecting the allegations against him in detail.

The lawyer declined to clarify if Whelan had known the individual who handed him the information.

He said Whelan had been experiencing some minor health problems in custody and was receiving treatment.

Whelan’s family have said he is innocent and was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

(Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Kevin Liffey)

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

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

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

“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.

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

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

Former U.S. Marine held for spying had Russian contacts with military backgrounds

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the pre-trial detention centre Lefortovo, where former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan is reportedly held in custody in Moscow, Russia January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo

By Gabrielle T’trault-Farber and Maxim Rodionov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine held in Moscow on spying charges, had online contact with more than 20 Russians with military backgrounds, an analysis of social media shows.

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.

In addition, about a fifth of those on Whelan’s list have backgrounds in IT, engineering or civil aviation, a quarter are not connected to the military or technical sectors, and there is no information about the rest.

Whelan’s family says he is innocent and was in Moscow for a wedding when he was arrested last month. The “Free Paul Whelan” Twitter page managed by the family has used the hashtag #JustATourist in one of its posts.

Russian authorities have not given details of his alleged spying, and the FSB security service did not respond immediately to questions on whether Whelan’s online activity was linked to his detention.

Analysis of Whelan’s online activity – including exchanges with Russian friends and content on their own accounts – provides a fuller picture of his contacts than has so far been revealed.

Reuters contacted 38 people on Whelan’s VK friend list, almost all men in their 20s.

Whelan, 48, contacted them years ago through pen-pal websites or VK, corresponding occasionally online over the years, five of his contacts told Reuters.

Whelan’s military contacts in Russia are low-level, come from various regions and have served in the army, airborne forces and navy, according to information and pictures posted online.

In Russia, men aged between 18 and 27 are conscripted into the military for a year. Enrolment at military academies, which is not mandatory, can lead to a career in the services.

Asked if he was aware of Whelan’s Russian military contacts online, his brother David said: “I didn’t know he had a VK account before last week. But I’m not surprised that he had friends on social media, both Facebook and VK, that had military backgrounds just as he had a military background.”

Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, was not available for comment.

The arrest of Whelan, who also holds British citizenship, further strains relations between Moscow and Washington, which have soured over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, economic sanctions and accusations of election meddling.

ONLINE ACTIVITY

The “Free Paul Whelan” Twitter page shows postcards Whelan sent to his sister from Russia in 2015 and 2018.

Whelan first posted on his VK page in November 2010 and has since published congratulations on Russian public holidays, military celebrations and other events.

In February 2015, he posted: “In Moscow …” along with a Russian mobile phone number. Calls to it this week went unanswered.

One of Whelan’s friends lists his employer as the Russian Defence Ministry and writes that he studied at the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School, a military academy.

A picture posted in 2012 shows the friend in a Russian serviceman’s striped vest under a green camouflage jacket.

Another 26-year-old Russian posted pictures of himself and classmates at the Naval Cadet Corps, which trains naval officers in St Petersburg.

A man apparently in his 20s posted pictures of himself in a paratrooper’s blue beret and army fatigues bearing the inscription: “Nizhegorodsky Cadet Corps”.

Vadim Izotov said he first interacted with Whelan in 2008 while at the defense ministry’s Military University. He was surprised Whelan had been charged with espionage.

“I understood he had a positive attitude towards Russia, towards our culture. That’s why he traveled here,” he said.

“He communicated with Russian military here because he himself had been a serviceman.”

Lenar Azmukhanov, a 30-year-old from Kazan who attended the Ulyanovsk Higher Military Technical College, said he and Whelan congratulated each other on holidays but their interaction did not go beyond that.

Another friend of Whelan’s, who did not want to be named, said he first had contact with him in 2005 or 2006 on a pen-pal website. They met once in person in 2008.

“As far as I know his trips to Russia were for tourism,” he said. “He had friends in the military, but I, for example, am not one of them.”

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Maxim Rodionov; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Britain cautions Russia not to use detained ex-U.S. marine as pawn

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt arrives in Downing Street, London, Britain, December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Kate Holton and Gabrielle T’trault-Farber

LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Britain cautioned Russia on Friday that individuals should not be used as diplomatic pawns after a former U.S. marine who also holds a British passport was detained in Moscow on espionage charges.

Paul Whelan was arrested by the FSB state security service on Dec. 28. His family has said he is innocent and that he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

“Individuals should not be used as pawns of diplomatic leverage,” British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said.

“We are extremely worried about Paul Whelan. We have offered consular assistance,” Hunt said. “The U.S. are leading on this because he is a British and American citizen.”

Since leaving the U.S. military, Whelan had worked as a global security executive with U.S. companies, had visited Russia and had developed a network of Russian acquaintances.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week that Washington had asked Moscow to explain Whelan’s arrest and would demand his immediate return if it determined his detention is inappropriate.

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

Whelan’s detention further complicates a strained relationship between Moscow and Washington, despite the professed desire of the two presidents, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, to build a personal rapport.

U.S. intelligence officials accuse Russia of meddling in U.S. elections – a charge Russia denies.

Putin has previously stated he would rein in Russian retaliatory measures against U.S. interests in the hope relations would improve, but Whelan’s detention indicates the Kremlin’s calculations may now have changed.

SWAP SPECULATION

A Russian national, Maria Butina, admitted last month to U.S. prosecutors that she had tried to infiltrate American conservative groups as an agent for Moscow.

David Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was “possible, even likely”, that Russia had detained Whelan to set up an exchange for Butina.

Dmitry Novikov, a first deputy head of the international affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, commenting on a possible swap, said Russian intelligence first needed to finish their investigations. “Then we’ll see,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

Whelan’s British citizenship introduces a new political dimension – relations between London and Moscow have been toxic since the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in March last year.

Britain alleges Skripal was poisoned by Russian intelligence agents posing as tourists, while Russia denies any involvement.

RUSSIAN TIES

Paul Whelan is 48 and lives in Novi, Michigan, according to public records. Whelan is director of global security at BorgWarner, a U.S. auto parts maker based in Michigan.

The company said Whelan was “responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and at other company locations around the world”. Its website lists no facilities in Russia.

U.S. media said he had previously worked in security and investigations for the global staffing firm Kelly Services, which is headquartered in Michigan and has operations in Russia.

Whelan’s military record, provided by the Pentagon, showed that he served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 14 years. The highest rank he attained was staff sergeant. He was discharged in 2008 after being convicted on charges related to larceny, according to his records.

Whelan has for years maintained an account in VKontakte, a Russian social media network, which showed that he had a circle of Russian acquaintances.

Out of the more than 50 people tagged as Whelan’s friends on VKontakte, a significant number were software engineers or worked in the IT sector, and a significant proportion had ties to the fields of defense and security.

One of these people served in the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet, a photo of that person posted on his own account indicated, and a second friend had on his VKontakte page photos of people in the uniform of Russian paratroop forces.

Whelan used the account to send out congratulations on Russian public holidays. In 2015, he posted the words in Russian: “In Moscow…” and accompanied it with a Russian mobile phone number. The number was not answering this week.

According to his brother David, Whelan was in Moscow to attend the wedding of a fellow retired marine. When he was detained he was staying with the rest of the wedding party at Moscow’s upmarket Metropol hotel, the brother said. He did not specify where the wedding itself took place.

An employee at the hotel, who spoke on condition, said on Friday they could not access the hotel’s database to check, but could not recall any weddings being scheduled at the hotel in the second half of December.

(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. demands immediate return of ex-Marine detained in Russia on spy charges

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

By Mary Milliken and Gabrielle Teacutetrault-Farber

BRASILIA/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The United States is demanding the immediate return of a retired U.S. Marine detained by Russia on spying charges, and wants an explanation of why he was arrested, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday.

Pompeo, in Brasilia for the inauguration of Brazil’s new president, said the U.S. government hoped to gain consular access to Paul Whelan within hours.

“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,” Pompeo said.

In Moscow, RIA news agency cited a foreign ministry spokesman as saying Russia has allowed consular access to Whelan. Russia’s FSB state security service detained Whelan on Friday and opened a criminal case against him.

The State Department did not immediately confirm that Moscow had provided consular access.

Whelan was visiting Moscow for the wedding of a former fellow Marine and is innocent of the espionage charges against him, his family said on Tuesday.

He had been staying with the wedding party at Moscow’s Metropol hotel when he went missing, his brother, David, said.

“His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” Whelan’s family said in a statement released on Twitter on Tuesday.

Russia’s FSB state security service said Whelan had been detained on Friday, but it gave no details of his alleged espionage activities. Under Russian law, espionage can carry a prison sentence of between 10 and 20 years.

David Whelan told CNN that his brother, who had served in Iraq, has been to Russia many times in the past for both work and personal trips, and had been serving as a tour guide for some of the wedding guests. His friends filed a missing person report in Moscow after his disappearance, his brother said.

He declined to comment on his brother’s work status at the time of his arrest and whether his brother lived in Novi, Michigan, as address records indicate.

BorgWarner, a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier, said Whelan is the company’s director, global security. He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and at other company locations around the world.”

BUTINA CASE

Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was “possible, even likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Whelan’s arrest to set up an exchange for Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to acting as an agent tasked with influencing U.S. conservative groups.

Russia says Butina was forced to make a false confession about being a Russian agent.

Putin told U.S. President Donald Trump in a letter on Sunday that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a “wide-ranging agenda,” the Kremlin said following a series of failed attempts to hold a new summit.

At the end of November, Trump canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions about Russian forces opening fire on Ukrainian navy boats and then seizing them.

Trump’s relations with Putin have been under a microscope as a result of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Moscow has denied intervening in the election. Trump has said there was no collusion and characterized Mueller’s probe as a witch hunt.

Russia’s relations with the United States plummeted when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Washington and Western allies have imposed a broad range of sanctions on Russian officials, companies and banks.

(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Russia detains U.S. citizen in Moscow for suspected spying

FILE PHOTO: A flag flies behind an enclosure on the territory of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Russia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva/File Photo

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s FSB state security service said on Monday it had detained an American citizen suspected of spying in Moscow and had opened a criminal case against him.

The FSB said the American had been detained on December 28 but it gave no details of the nature of his alleged espionage.

The English-language service of TASS news agency named the American as Paul Whelan but Reuters was unable to independently confirm the exact spelling of his name.

Russia’s foreign ministry told TASS it could not provide further detail on the case, but said the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had been informed.

The U.S. Embassy would not comment directly, referring inquiries to the State Department in Washington.

Under Russian law, espionage can carry between 10 and 20 years in prison.

Earlier this month Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to a conspiracy charge in a deal with prosecutors and admitted to working with a top Russian official to infiltrate American conservative activist groups and politicians as an agent for Moscow.

U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller in July indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers on charges related to hacking Democratic Party computer networks in 2016.

In February he charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies as part of a criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the election to support Trump and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

Russia has denied interfering in the election. Trump has denied colluding with Moscow.

Russia’s relations with the United States plummeted when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and Washington and Western allies have imposed a broad range of sanctions on Russian officials, companies and banks.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Trault-Farber in Moscow and Will Dunham in Washington; Editing by Richard Balmforth, William Maclean)