Paul Whelan case: Russia rejects possible spy swap, calls reports ‘fake news’

January 11, 2019 GMT

Russia on Friday denied plans of a spy swap involving Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested in Moscow last month and accused of espionage.

“I would like to emphasize that exchanging Paul Whelan for someone held in custody abroad is out of the question at the current stage,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said during a weekly press briefing, state media reported.

“There are numerous reports on that score, there are outright speculations and fake news, but I have now voiced the official Russian stance,” Ms. Zakharova added, according to TASS, a government-owned news outlet.

Mr. Whelan was arrested in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2019, and reports of a possible spy swap have persisted since details about his detainment surfaced the following week, particularly in light of the Kremlin criticizing the recent conviction of Maria Butina, a 30-year-old Russian gun-rights activist who pleaded guilty in D.C. federal court last month to conspiring against the U.S.


President Trump’s ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, visited Mr. Whelan at the Lefortovo Detention Facility in Moscow on Jan. 2 and offered the U.S. Embassy’s assistance, a State Department spokesperson told The Washington Times afterward.

It has since emerged that Mr. Whelan was born to British parents in Canada and holds passports issued by the U.S., U.K., Canada and Ireland.

“For their part, they asked for a visit,” Ms. Zakharova said of the countries Friday, TASS reported. “They will get such an opportunity by mutual agreement and at a mutually convenient time.”

Mr. Whelan is been charged under Article 276 of the Russian Penal Code for Espionage, a State Department spokesperson told The Washington Times on Friday. He faces up to 20 years in Russian prison if found guilty.

“As Secretary [Mike] Pompeo has said, the safety and security of Americans traveling abroad is of the utmost importance to us here at the State Department and throughout the United States Government,” the spokesperson said in response to an emailed request regarding Mr. Whelan’s case and a possible spy swap.

“The Department remains in regular contact with the Whelan family,” the spokesperson added. “Due to privacy considerations for Mr. Whelan and his family, we have nothing further at this time.”

A former student of American University in D.C., Butina pleaded guilty last month to one count of conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia. She agreed to cooperate with investigators and is currently being held pending sentencing in Alexandria, Virginia.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, previously denied Russian authorities arrested Mr. Whelan in retaliation.

“In Russia people are never used as pawns in a diplomatic game,” he told TASS this week. “Russia conducts counterintelligence activity against those who are suspected of espionage, this is done on a regular basis.”

Mr. Whelan’s relatives said he was in Moscow for a wedding and have denied the allegations of espionage.