WASHINGTON — Russia is moving forward with requests by an American detained on spy charges to receive visits from representatives of the four countries of which he has citizenship, his twin brother told BuzzFeed News.
Paul Whelan, who was detained on Dec. 28 and is being held in Russia’s notorious Lefortovo Prison, reached out to the governments of Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States, for help, his brother David Whelan said Tuesday.
David said the family was concerned that his brother’s multiple citizenships could work against him. Whelan was eligible for UK and Irish citizenship since his grandfather immigrated to Britain from Ireland, and for Canadian citizenship since his father emigrated from Britain to Canada, where the brothers were born. The family moved to Michigan in the early 1970s, and Paul now lives in the state and was traveling on a US passport. David said he only learned Paul had four passports when he learned he had asked for consular services from all four countries.
“There was a little bit of a concern that this might sort of dilute the interest of any particular government,” Whelan said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. But his understanding now, he said, is “the more eyes, the better.”
“He’s got that resource available to him. He might as well use it,” David said.
“If the arrested person confirms he wants these visits, they’ll be organized at a time that’s convenient to all sides,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Monday.
“The Americans are taking the lead because Paul went into Russia on an American passport,” David said, but noted, “It doesn’t mean they’re going to handle all the access.” After speaking to BuzzFeed News, David learned that consular requests made by the three other countries had been granted by the Russian Foreign Ministry and that the non-US consular officials hope to visit his brother later this week.
No one from the Whelan family plans to try to go to Russia, and no one in the family has spoken to Russian authorities, he said.
Four countries handling one detained man’s case is unusual — but then, so is much about the case of Paul Whelan, who is now, by his brother’s count, on his 11th day of detention. Paul’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, appears to have been appointed by the Federal Security Service, which arrested Whelan while he was on a trip to Moscow for a wedding. Paul Whelan is a former Marine and law enforcement officer turned global services director for an automotive components manufacturing company who is now accused of spying for the US government.
“My response to that is that there’s no way that he would do that,” David said.
“He’s a patriot. He loves America. He was proud to serve in the Marines,” but, David stressed, “I don’t think he would spy.”
“How he lives openly on the web,” said David Whelan, noting that his brother’s page on VKontakte, a Russian social media site, “makes him an unlikely candidate” for espionage.
“It’s unfortunate when we look at a person through a lens of, well, he’s sitting in a Russian prison so he must have done something,” David said. “The Paul that really exists is not being seen in the way his family, his friends, I think even the intelligence community would see him.”
Former intelligence officers were quick to note that Paul does not fit the profile of a spy.
“Whelan's arrest was almost certainly a tit-for-tat move from the Kremlin. We have been in a period of tit-for-tat diplomacy with Russia for some time, including the reciprocal diplomatic expulsions in early 2018,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. Some former intelligence officials have suggested that Whelan is being held so that he can be exchanged with Maria Butina, who admitted to conspiring to act as a Russian agent last month. Whelan’s lawyer has suggested he would like to trade Whelan for “at least one Russian soul.”
“The arrest of Whelan fits a pattern of the Kremlin’s increasing harassment of US officials serving in Moscow. During the last few years, Russian security services have increased their surveillance and overt harassment of US officials serving there,” Kendall-Taylor, now director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, added.
The family is in contact with the staff at the US Embassy, and US Ambassador Jon Huntsman saw Paul last Wednesday. For now, the Whelan family hopes that Americans will see a US (and Canadian, British, and Irish) citizen detained in Russia.
“The family would really appreciate any American who is willing to speak to and call their senator, member of the House, and let them know they don’t want Paul to be kept in Russia,” David said.
As for what he’d like to see the government do, Whelan said, “Governments will be putting pressure on Russia to show their cards.”
“Because if they have no cards, they should release Paul.”