The office of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is accusing Russia of playing politics in the case of Paul Whelan, a Canadian-born former U.S. Marine now being held in a Moscow jail.
“We call on Russia to share the charges against him. Detention should not be used as a political tool,” Adam Austen, a spokesman for Ms. Freeland, said in an e-mailed statement on Sunday.
Last month, Mr. Whelan was visiting Moscow ahead of a friend’s wedding; on Dec. 28, he was arrested and brought to the infamous Lefortovo Prison. Reports suggest Russian prosecutors suspect him of potential acts of spying, though details have not been released.
The case is garnering global attention at a pivotal juncture in Russia’s relations with the West.
An ex-military man who has passports from four countries, he also carries a U.S. gun licence and has made at least two other trips to Russia. Canada and its close allies say Mr. Whelan is being built up into a bargaining chip. “Individuals should not be used as pawns of diplomatic leverage,” the British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said on Friday.
In recent months, the United States, Britain and Canada have been harmonizing their criticisms of Russian President Vladimir Putin for alleged acts of aggression and interference against the West.
Last month, a 30-year-old Russian national pleaded guilty in Washington to being an unregistered agent of influence plotting to sway U.S. politics. Maria Butina’s plea bargain with U.S. authorities was made public only two weeks before Mr. Whelan’s arrest.
Now journalists in Russia are asking whether the ex-Marine was taken as fodder for a future prisoner swap with Ms. Butina, similar to ones Moscow and Washington have worked out many times in the past. But “it’s impossible and incorrect to consider the question now, when an official charge hasn’t even been presented,” deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying this weekend.
For Mr. Whelan’s fraternal twin, the case is about Russia lashing out unpredictably. A Toronto-based law librarian, he described his detained brother as an innocent bachelor from Michigan and a man who has always loved to travel for work and pleasure.
“The reality is Paul and I were born in Canada to British parents,” David Whelan said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
He explained that his parents were of Irish heritage and uprooted the family from Ontario just a few years after the twins were born. As the father, a metallurgist, took a job in neighbouring Michigan, the family also became naturalized American citizens.
It was through this background that Paul Whelan legitimately acquired his four passports, David Whelan said.
It’s a citizenship fluke that essentially now obligates each issuing country to make consular representations in Moscow on his behalf. Because Paul Whelan travelled on an American passport, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow is taking the lead on the case.
But Canada is also pressing for prisoner visits. “We are seeking consular access,” said Mr. Austen, the government spokesman.
Global Affairs Canada initially released more muted messaging when news of the case first broke last week.
Paul Whalen had been a reservist in the U.S. Marine Corps when he was called up to serve in Iraq during the 2000s. Several U.S. news agencies have recently reported he was dishonourably discharged in 2008.
Otherwise he lived most of his life in Michigan, where he worked in corporate security. “I conduct investigations … theft, fraud, sexual harassment, workplace violence,” Mr. Whelan testified in a 2013 lawsuit launched against his then-employer. “I have a federal firearms licence.”
He is also said to have revelled in exposing security flaws. David Whelan recounts how his twin used to tell people about his work: “He was pointing out some problems [at a plant] like they had open windows, like on the second floor – or a half floor up or something. …. He jumped up onto the ledge and climbed into the window of the factory.”
He added that his brother visited Russia at least three times, but there was nothing secretive about these journeys. The first time was around 2006, as a vacation when he was a serving Marine. About five years ago, he took his parents on a tour. The other trip to Russia was this December after a close friend – another ex-soldier – decided to get married in Moscow.
“I know they’ve known each other for almost 20 years,” said David Whelan.
He said his twin brother had been taking Americans associated with the wedding party on a tour around Red Square museums shortly before disappearing. “He missed the wedding that day."
With a report from The Associated Press