American Paul Whelan, detained in Moscow last week, was indicted Thursday on espionage charges, Russia’s Interfax news agency.
The agency, citing what it called an informed source, said Whelan had denied claims in the indictment. Whelan, a former Marine, was arrested Dec. 28 “while on a spy mission,” the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) says.
Russian lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov, who was appointed to represent Whelan, told the agency that Whelan will remain in custody in Moscow until at least Feb. 28.
The FSB has said the investigation was continuing but that Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage. The US ambassador in Russia, Jon Huntsman, has visited Whelan at Lefortovo detention center in Moscow.
Whelan’s family denies the charges and says Whelan was in Moscow for a wedding when he was arrested.
“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being. His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” the family said in a statement after the arrest was announced.
Last month, Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an agent for the Kremlin – and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. She has been in jail since her arrest in July. The Kremlin has denied that Butina is a spy.
U.S.-Russian relations have struggled in recent months despite Trump’s frequent praise of President Vladimir Putin. Scores of Russian diplomats were expelled last year after the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in Britain that was linked to the Kremlin.
And Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election has brought scrutiny on communications between Trump’s inner circle and Russian operatives.
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