Congress should help secure release of American charged in Russia as spy: family

Russia's FSB security service arrested US national Paul Whelan, a security official at a US auto parts company, on December 28, saying he was caught "carrying out an act of espionage" (AFP Photo/FAMILY HANDOUT)

Washington (AFP) - The family of Paul Whelan, the American arrested last week in Moscow as an alleged spy, called Friday for Congress as well as the State Department to secure his release.

Two days after Whelan, 48, was officially charged by Russian authorities with espionage, his family said it was "pleased" that the US ambassador to Moscow, Jon Hunstman, has been given access to him and has committed to assuring Whelan's rights will be respected.

"Our focus remains on ensuring that Paul is safe, well treated, has a good lawyer, and is coming home," they said in a statement.

"We urge the US Congress and the State Department to help on Paul's behalf to secure his release and return him home soon."

Whelan, a security official at a US auto parts company and a former US Marine, was arrested on December 28 "while carrying out an act of espionage," the FSB security service announced on December 31.

His family said he was visiting Moscow for a friend's wedding and US security experts raised doubts that he was a spy, given a reportedly chequered history in the US military.

But some believed the arrest was retaliation for the US arrest last year of a Russian woman, Maria Butina, who was charged and pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian government -- a legal charge sometimes used against foreign intelligence agents.

Analysts speculate Moscow could be hoping to swap Whelan for Butina or another Russian held by the United States.

It is not clear how Congress could intervene, though the US legislature has used its sanctions powers to penalize Russia in the past.

Whelan was deeply interested in Russia and had visited the country a number of times in a personal capacity.

He had a page on Vkontakte, a Facebook-like Russian social media site, and through that made contact with a number of Russians, some of whom had military ties.

Born in Canada to British parents, he had citizenship in four countries: the United States, Canada, Britain and Ireland, according to the New York Times.

Eariler Friday, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested Moscow was using Whelan as a pawn in a political game with its Western rivals.

Hunt told the BBC that Britain had been offered consular access to Whelan, but had not been able to visit him yet.

"We are giving him every support that we can, but we don't agree with individuals being used in diplomatic chess games," Hunt said.