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Family Says Detained U.S. Citizen Is Innocent, Was In Moscow For Wedding

A Russian flag flies next to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (file photo)

The family of a U.S. citizen being held by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) over suspected spying says he is innocent and was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

Paul Whelan, a retired Marine, was last heard from on December 28, according to a statement from his family, obtained by RFE/RL on January 1.

This “was very much out of character for him, even when he was traveling,” the statement said.

“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being. His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” it added.

Russian media reports have said Whelan could face between 10 to 20 years in prison if found guilty but disclosed no further details.

David Whelan told RFE/RL that his brother "has a corporate security role" with BorgWarner, a U.S.-based supplier of automotive parts and components.

Russia's state-owned conglomerate Rostec said in 2013 that its truckmaker, Kamaz, had a long record of collaboration with a subsidiary of BorgWarner known as BorgWarnerTurboSystems.

Representatives for BorgWarner did not immediately respond to a January 1 request for comment on Paul Whelan's links to the company and his arrest in Russia.

The announcement of Whelan’s detainment came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow remains open to dialogue with Washington in a New Year’s greeting to U.S. President Donald Trump.

The U.S. State Department has said it knows about "the detention of a U.S. citizen by Russian authorities" and had been formally notified by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

"Russia's obligations under the Vienna Convention require them to provide consular access," the State Department said. "We have requested this access and expect Russian authorities to provide it."

Relations between the United States and Russia remain strained over a raft of issues including Russia’s role in wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine, its alleged meddling in elections in the United States and elsewhere, and the poisoning of a Russian double agent in Britain.

At the end of November, Trump abruptly canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions after Russian forces opened fire on Ukrainian Navy boats before seizing them and capturing 24 Ukrainian sailors.

The detention of Whelan comes weeks after a Russian woman pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to acting as an agent for the Kremlin.

Maria Butina allegedly tried to lobby officials within the powerful National Rifle Association and the Republican Party in hopes of influencing U.S. policies in favor of Moscow.

The Kremlin has denied that Butina is a Russian agent and has organized a social-media campaign to secure her release.

In the past, Russia has arrested foreigners with the aim of trading prisoners with other countries.

In his annual year-end news conference on December 20, Putin said Russia would "not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on."