Russia says alleged spy from Novi was caught 'red-handed'

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
This undated photo provided by the Whelan family shows Paul Whelan in Iceland. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine arrested in Russia on espionage charges, was visiting Moscow over the holidays to attend a wedding when he suddenly disappeared, his brother said Jan. 1, 2019.

Russia said a Novi man accused of espionage had been caught in the act of spying in his Moscow hotel room.

The man, Paul Whelan, a 48-year-old former U.S. Marine, has been held in a Russian prison since his arrest on Dec. 28.

"He was caught red-handed," Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said Wednesday during a news conference in Moscow.

An online Russian news site, citing anonymous sources, said earlier this month Whelan was detained five minutes after receiving a thumb drive containing the names of employees of a secret Russian state agency, according to Reuters and USA Today.

During the news conference, Lavrov denied that Russia had arrested Whelan to facilitate a swap of Russian spies held in the United States

"We don't do such things," he said.

Whelan's family has said he was in Russia to attend a wedding.

Meanwhile, Whelan was visited in prison Wednesday by a member of the Irish consulate.

The consulate told Whelan's family the prison conditions were OK, and it passed along toiletries to him, said Whelan's brother, David.

During the hour-long visit, the consulate official received messages from Paul Whelan that it passed along to the family. The family also learned that Whelan has his glasses and is learning some Russian words, David Whelan said.

"We're thankful for the efforts made on Paul's behalf," the brother said.

David Whelan said the family will remain in contact with the consulates of Ireland, U.S., Britain and Canada. Paul Whelan has passports to all four countries. He is an American citizen who was born in Canada and whose parents are British citizens.

The Wednesday visit was the first since a member of the U.S. embassy visited Whelan on Jan. 2. The U.S. embassy is scheduled to revisit Whelan on Thursday.

Whelan's predicament, meanwhile, also was on the minds of U.S. and Canada officials, said a spokesman for the U.S. Secretary of State.

During a Tuesday meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chrystia Freeland, Canada's foreign minister, discussed their mutual concern over Whelan's detention.

Whelan faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty of spying.