WASHINGTON - The arrest of a Michigan corporate security executive on espionage allegations in Russia seemed to his family like a horrible mistake, a misunderstanding that could be quickly resolved with help from the U.S. government.
But it hasn't worked out that way.
Six months later, and despite extensive U.S. efforts on his behalf, Paul Whelan is entangled in a Russian legal system so opaque that the evidence against him remains unknown. His family has had only limited contact with him and no idea when, or if, he will be released.
“Without any information, we can't have any certainty that anything is happening at all,” said his brother David Whelan in an interview with The Associated Press.
The Whelan case, which at first seemed to many like a possible Moscow tit-for-tat response to the arrest of Russian gun-rights activist Maria Butina in the United States, has become a lesson on the limits of American power to help a U.S. citizen charged with a serious crime in a hostile country.
The 49-year-old man faces a sentence of 20 years on a charge of espionage.
Whelan's case has received extensive media coverage since his Dec. 28 arrest at a Moscow hotel. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. has visited him in prison and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the U.S. will demand his release if the arrest is deemed inappropriate. Russian human rights groups have said they will look into his complaints of abusive treatment inside in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison, a 130-year-old facility noted for strict conditions.
None of that has seemed to produce any results. A Russian court late last month extended his detention until at least Aug. 29 while the espionage case proceeds against him.
Whelan's family, meanwhile, insists the U.S. could do more to help him.
David, who has become a de facto spokesman from his home near Toronto, would like his brother to receive the same level of assistance and support that the U.S. government gives to American hostages through the FBI-led Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell.
“I think Paul's case falls into a gap in American law in how resources are applied for American citizens who find themselves wrongfully detained in foreign countries,” David Whelan said.
The fusion cell was created by the Obama administration in 2015 after a series of horrific beheadings of Westerners by Islamic State militants. It was intended to streamline resources for hostage takings by terrorists or pirates, coordinating diplomatic, law enforcement or military rescue efforts and offering intelligence briefings for loved ones of detainees.
But it doesn't cover cases of Americans accused of violating another nation's laws, where a foreign nation has acknowledged the detention. Those are handled diplomatically by the State Department, which through its consular affairs bureau visits detained citizens and ensures appropriate medical care but cannot give legal advice or free someone from custody.
“It's real important that we don't lump cases like Paul and call them hostages,'' said Robert Saale, the former director of the cell. “In Paul Whelan's case, it's not against the law for the Russian government to arrest him and charge him with something.”
David Whelan said he's grateful for assistance that the family has received. He just thinks the government could do more. He said he's not necessarily asking for his brother to be classified as a hostage but rather to be acknowledged as unlawfully detained. The family's Washington lawyer, Ryan Fayhee, said that could happen if the FBI investigates and establishes once and for all that the allegations are baseless.
“There is investigative work to be done here that has not been done,” said Fayhee, a former Justice Department national security prosecutor. “To not have those skills and those capabilities leveraged to recover an American citizen is really problematic.”
He likened the case to a traditional kidnapping in light of the speculation following Whelan's arrest that he was being used as a pawn in a potential prisoner swap, which Russian officials have denied.
Much about Whelan's case has been shrouded in mystery since his arrest, which occurred during a two-week visit to Moscow for the wedding of a fellow ex-Marine. The scarcity of information coupled with curious biographical details — including an online web of Russian contacts — and his citizenship in multiple countries have fueled public intrigue.
A Russian news site said Whelan — who was born in Canada to British parents — was arrested with a flash drive containing government secrets. His Russian lawyer acknowledges he had the storage device but that the American did not know what was on it.
His brother insists he's not a spy, and it's not clear his past would have made him an attractive candidate for U.S. intelligence, with his career in the Marine Corps cut short by a court martial in 2008 for attempted larceny and dereliction of duty.
Whelan spent more than a decade cultivating friends and contacts in Russia, building connections on a social media site similar to Facebook with many men with at least some connection to the military. Several have told The Associated Press that he never seemed sinister, merely someone with an interest in Russia and a desire to be pen pals.
“If there was a case, I think the evidence would have been brought forward by now,” Huntsman told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in April. “If there is no evidence, and the Russians have not shown that there is any evidence so far, then let's move on. Let's move on and quit playing these games.”