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Family of American arrested in Russia on spy charges fears for his safety

MOSCOW — The American whom Russians have arrested and declared a spy is a Marine Corps veteran who was in Moscow to attend a wedding, his family said on Tuesday.

Russia’s Federal Security Service said on Monday that the American, Paul N. Whelan, had been detained on Friday “during an act of espionage,” and that a criminal case had been opened against him.

Conviction on a spying charge in Russia carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

“We noticed that he was not in communication,” his parents and siblings said in a statement, “which was very much out of character for him even when he was traveling.”

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Whelan’s twin brother, David, said Paul was in Moscow for a wedding of a fellow Marine, which took place at an upscale hotel in central Moscow on Dec. 28, the day he was detained.

‘‘It is inconceivable to me that he would have done anything to break the law in Russia,’’ David Whelan told The Washington Post.

A member of the US government should have visited Whelan in detention by now, according to Russia’s obligations under the Vienna Convention, which dictates that consular access must be provided within a 72-hour window from the time of arrest.

But the government shutdown may have hindered this process, said a person familiar with Whelan’s case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

Although US embassies are not closed during the shutdown, they are working with reduced staff. The person added that it could take months before the case is resolved.

A press officer for the State Department said by e-mail the department had been notified of the arrest by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

‘‘We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,’’ his family said in a statement. ‘‘His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.’’

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David Whelan described his brother as a “kind soul” who was generous and “often has stories that make you eye-roll.”

Paul Whelan works as the corporate security director for BorgWarner, an automotive parts supplier based in Auburn Hills, Mich., that has business contracts in Russia. ‘‘BorgWarner has been in contact with the relevant US government authorities in order to help our employee and the US government,’’ the company said in a statement.

Whelan is a regular visitor to Russia.

According to Whelan’s brother and Russian acquaintances reached by the Post, he has been visiting Russia since 2007.

He enlisted in the Marines in 1994 and rose through the ranks to become a staff sergeant, serving two tours in Iraq, in 2004 and 2006, according to military records released to the Post.

Whelan was discharged for bad conduct in 2008 after being convicted of several charges related to larceny, according to the records.

Several Russian acquaintances described Whelan as a friendly man who greatly appreciated Russia and had a basic command of the language.

An acquaintance in St. Petersburg said the pair had made plans to meet in that city around Jan. 1, but contact with the American abruptly stopped on the day of his arrest.

Whelan’s arrest comes as tensions between Washington and Moscow continue to escalate over issues including election interference, the crises in Syria and Ukraine, and the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.

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Russian officials have denied any involvement in such efforts.

The timing of Whelan’s arrest — coming weeks after Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina pleaded guilty to Kremlin interference in the United States — has raised questions about a potential swap. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty.


Material from The Washington Post and New York Times was used in this report.