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Washington — The new U.S. ambassador to Russia is calling for the country to release a Novi man being held in a Russian prison on spying charges.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called for the release of Paul Whelan, 49, after visiting him in Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, a spokeswoman at the U.S. embassy in Moscow confirmed Thursday on Twitter.

Whelan, who was director of global security for Auburn Hills-based auto supplier BorgWarner, was arrested Dec. 28, 2018, at his hotel in Moscow. Russia's Federal Security Service said its agents allegedly found a USB drive with classified information in the former U.S. Marine's room.

Rebecca Ross, a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy, quoted Sullivan in a tweet:

"Ambassador Sullivan: 'I came to Lefortovo today to see #PaulWhelan because his welfare and protection are a priority for the U.S. Government and for me personally. I had hoped he would have been released by now. He has been detained for over 13 months.”

In a subsequent tweet, she continued to quote the ambassador:

“#PaulWhelan’s case has gone on far too long. Investigators have shown no evidence – zero. Russian authorities show no credible justification for isolating Paul, and refuse to allow Paul to get proper medical attention. This is shameful treatment.

"What we need in #PaulWhelan’s case – where there is no evidence and clearly no crime – is to have him released as soon as possible. It’s time for this nightmare to end, and for Paul to go home.”

Whelan's brother, David, said in an email Thursday that the Whelan family appreciates Sullivan's efforts to convince Russian authorities to relent. 

"Paul has been wrongfully detained for more than 13 months [398 days as of 1/30/2020]," David Whelan said. "We are appreciative for the hard work of so many consular staff — US, UK, Canadian, and Irish — to help Paul while he remains a prisoner.

David Whelan said the family was glad to see that Israel was successfully able to secure the freedom of Naama Issachar, a dual Israeli-American citizen who had been held in Russia.

"Ms. Issachar was held in similar coercive detention but was apparently freed as 'the result of a Russian goodwill gesture toward the United States,'" David Whelan wrote. "We hope the goodwill Russia extended to a backpacker will be extended to a tourist and that Paul will be freed." 

Whelan’s family has said Paul was in Russia for a friend’s wedding when he was arrested and charged with espionage. His lawyers have said Whelan was framed and had no knowledge of the classified data on a flash drive he was handed as part of the alleged setup.

In October, the U.S. House unanimously approved a resolution urging Russia to produce “credible” evidence against Whelan or “immediately” release him.

Whelan's family and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow have raised concerns about his declining health due to a hernia, as well as his treatment and isolation by authorities in Russia.

A trial is not expected until early 2020.

David Whelan said Paul's lawyers have indicated they have been able to visit with him. 

"They must have heard the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' complaints on how long it was taking to prepare for trial," David Whelan said. "The ministry continues to publicly misrepresent the conditions of Paul's imprisonment. We were glad to see Ambassador Sullivan and embassy staff stand up for the truth surrounding the (Federal Security Service's) ongoing isolation of Paul." 

klaing@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed to this report. 

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