Since Russia accused U.S. citizen Paul Whelan of espionage and detained him last week, curious details about the 48-year-old’s personal life continue to trickle out. He was discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2008 for bad conduct. He has dozens of Russian friends on Russian social media site VKontakte.
And, as it turns out, he claims citizenship in four different countries — including Canada because he was born in Ottawa.
Earlier this week, Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, visited the former Marine in the detention facility in Moscow where he is being held. But Whelan, a Michigan resident, also has family ties that allowed him to qualify for British and Irish citizenship. Both European countries are now requesting access to him, raising questions as to whether Whelan’s many passports could affect potential negotiations for his release.
And Canadian Global Affairs spokesman Richard Walker said “consular officials are aware that a Canadian citizen had been arrested in Russia.”
Michael Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston, said that being a citizen in as many as four countries might be unique, but that it’s “increasingly common that people would have two or more” passports. “Most people don’t live lives that necessitate, require or even allow four passports,” Olivas said. But “it’s certainly not illegal.”
It doesn’t matter which passport Whelan used to enter Russia. All four countries now have the opportunity to assist him. And having ties to so many different nations could actually help him. “What it does is it gives more countries more stake in his situation,” he said.
What remains to be seen is whether one country will speak louder than another on his behalf. Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that “it’s absolutely crucial” for all four countries to work together. Otherwise, he warned that Russia could try to make different arrangements with different countries. “If the group doesn’t speak in one voice, the Russians will manage to get a higher price for him,” Cohen said.
Britain and Russia’s relationship sharply deteriorated last year after a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, was poisoned in England with a nerve agent and spent months recovering.
British authorities have blamed Russia for carrying out the attack — an assertion Moscow denies.
Experts have speculated that Whelan was arrested so that Russia could make a swap with the U.S. for Maria Butina, the Russian woman who pleaded guilty to conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate conservative U.S. circles.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has gone to great lengths to paint Butina as a political prisoner, notably by launching a wide-ranging social media campaign.
“We don’t agree with individuals being used in diplomatic chess games,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Sky News. “Because it is desperately worrying, not just for the individual but their families, and we are extremely worried about him and his family as we hear this news.”
Cohen said Butina will be released soon enough anyway, and that Russia might have other bargaining chips in mind.
Whelan’s family said that he had travelled to Russia before and was in Moscow this time for a wedding. BorgWarner, the automotive parts supplier where Whelan works as corporate security director, has said he was not there on business for them. And Russia’s domestic security service claims he was carrying out a “spy mission.” A guilty verdict could mean 10 to 20 years in prison.
As for the reasoning behind all the passports? A person familiar with Whelan’s case told The Post that he collected them “as a game.”
“There was an ongoing competition with his sister to see who could get the most,” the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Regardless of the reasons behind his many passports, they might now come to his aid, Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University.
“It could be a real practical advantage for him to have the Brits and the Irish piling on,” Spiro said. Both governments “might also serve as a backstop if the U.S. government for whatever reason fails to aggressively pursue his case.”
The minimal amount of information provided by Russia — which is on holiday until after the Russian Orthodox Church marks Christmas on Monday — only adds to the intrigue. There has been no word from the Kremlin on Whelan’s arrest.
“We have no details related to his arrest or what he was or wasn’t carrying,” Whelan’s twin brother, David Whelan, said Friday, referring to an uncorroborated Russian news report that Paul had received a flash drive containing a list of employees for a Russian agency.
David, who lives in Toronto, said only U.S. embassy officials in Russia have been able to communicate with his brother. “It sounds as though he is unhurt and well, considering he’s detained,” he said.
In a statement he added the family’s “focus remains on ensuring that Paul is safe, well treated, has a good lawyer, and is coming home.” He urged both the U.S. Congress and the State Department to help get his brother freed.
David said he and his brother were born in Ottawa but that Paul hasn’t lived in Canada since the early 1970s when the family left to the U.S.
— With files from Douglas Quan, National Post
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