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 Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. (Courtesy of the Whelan Family via AP)
Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow last week © AP

The former US marine arrested by Russia’s security services last week has pleaded not guilty to charges of espionage, according to his lawyer.

Paul Whelan, a 48-year-old security director at a Michigan-based car parts company, told a Moscow court at his arraignment on Saturday that he denied the spying charges, his lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov told the Interfax news wire on Thursday.

Mr Zherebenkov said Mr Whelan plans to appeal the judge’s decision to keep him in custody until February 28. The charges against Mr Whelan, which Mr Zherebenkov said were classified, carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.

A Russophile who had visited the country regularly over the past decade for work and as a tourist, Mr Whelan was arrested while attending the wedding of a fellow former Marine in Moscow’s Metropol hotel, his twin brother David said. The FSB, Russia’s successor to the KGB security service, said it caught Mr Whelan “in the course of carrying out espionage activities”, but has not specified the charges.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said on Wednesday that Washington would “demand [Mr Whelan’s] immediate return” if the detention “is not appropriate”.

Mr Whelan’s detention also comes weeks after Maria Butina, an aide to a former Russian central bank official, pleaded guilty to operating in the US as an unregistered Russian agent during the 2016 presidential election.

Although Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said last month that Moscow would not detain Americans in the hope of exchanging them for Ms Butina, analysts and several Russian friends of Mr Whelan said they suspected he had become a pawn in a geopolitical game.

Washington has also accused Moscow of carrying out several operations on foreign soil over the past year, including the attempted poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the UK. 

On Thursday, Rosbalt, a Russian website that frequently publishes leaks from Moscow’s secret services, alleged that Mr Whelan had been arrested in the Metropol hotel after receiving a flash drive containing the names of employees of a secret Russian intelligence agency.

The site claimed that Mr Whelan spent years contacting Russians that US intelligence found on social media in the hope of meeting people with access to classified information. Russian counter-intelligence began to suspect Mr Whelan of being a spy, Rosbalt said, because he “took no interest in pretty Russian girls and preferred to drink with men he met online”.

Several of Mr Whelan’s friends on Russian social network VK told the Financial Times that they had not seen him for a decade or, in some cases, never met him in person, and that Mr Whelan did not speak Russian.

“He loves Russian vodka and [Soviet cartoon] Cheburashka, wearing a fur hat and drinking tea out of metal holders,” said a VK friend of Mr Whelan who gave his name as Kirill. “He has a lot of friends in Russia.”

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