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US expects quick access to retired Marine arrested in Russia on spy charges

Secretary Michael R. Pompeo addresses the media and takes questions following the UN Security Council meeting on Iran. at the United Nations, in New York City on December 12, 2018. (State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States says it expects to soon get access to the American arrested on suspicion of espionage in Russia and will demand his immediate return if his detention is inappropriate.

“We are hopeful within the next hours we will get consular access to see him and get a chance to learn more,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters while on a visit to Brazil.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said on December 31 that it had arrested an American, later identified as Paul Whelan, who it said was caught red-handed carrying out an act of espionage.

The United States has “made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges and come to understand what it is he’s been accused of,” Pompeo said.

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“If the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return,” he said.

Whelan, 48, is a former U.S. Marine who lives in the state of Michigan and is director of global security at BorgWarner, a U.S.-based supplier of automotive parts and components.

In a statement obtained by RFE/RL on January 1, Whelan’s family denied he was a spy and said he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

The family said Whelan was last heard from on December 28.

Russian officials have given no details of Whelan’s alleged involvement in espionage. He could face between 10 to 20 years in prison if tried and convicted.

The announcement of Whelan’s detainment came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow remains open to dialogue with Washington in a New Year’s greeting to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Relations between Washington and Moscow are badly strained over issues including Russia’s role in wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine, its alleged meddling in elections in the United States and elsewhere, and the poisoning of a double agent in Britain.

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The detention of Whelan comes weeks after Russian Maria Butina pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to acting as an agent for the Kremlin.

The Kremlin has denied that Butina is a Russian agent and has organized a social-media campaign to secure her release.

In the past, Russia has sometimes arrested foreigners with the aim of trading prisoners with other countries.