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WASHINGTON – America's ambassador to Russia was allowed to visit detained American businessman Paul Whelan at a Moscow prison Wednesday as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration would demand his release if the charges against him are unfounded.

"We've made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he's been accused of, and if the detention is not appropriate we will demand his immediate return," Pompeo told reporters during a trip to Brazil.

In Moscow, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman visited Whelan at the Lefortovo Detention Facility, according to the State Department.

"Ambassador Huntsman expressed his support for Mr. Whelan and offered the embassy’s assistance," a State Department spokesman said. "Ambassador Huntsman subsequently spoke by telephone with Mr. Whelan’s family."

The State Department cited privacy considerations in declining to provide additional information.

Russian officials arrested Whelan, 48, a Michigan security executive and former Marine, on Monday and charged him with espionage. The Russian Federal Security Service said its investigation into Whelan was ongoing but he could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of spying.

Whelan's family has said the charges are baseless.

"I just can’t see him breaking laws in America, let alone going to a country that might be more difficult to navigate if he broke the law, and certainly not breaking a law of espionage," his twin brother, David Whelan, told the Detroit Free Press.

David Whelan, who now lives in Canada, said the two grew up in the Ann Arbor area. He said Paul Whelan served a couple of tours in Iraq with the Marines and then worked as a police officer. He is not married and does not have children, David Whelan said. Paul Whelan is now director of global security for automotive component supplier BorgWarner, based in Michigan.

David Whelan described his brother as "a very kind person. He's very generous with his time; he's funny. He's a gregarious sort of person."According to Paul Whelan's military records, he was a reservist in the Marines from May 1994 until Dec. 2, 2008. He was deployed to Iraq as an administrative clerk in 2004 and 2006. He was discharged in 2008 after being convicted "on several charges related to larceny," according to his records.

The charges against him included making a false statement, wrongfully using another person’s Social Security number, several instances of writing bad checks, according to a military court document.

In a statement released Tuesday, family members said Paul Whelan traveled to Moscow to attend a friend's wedding. They contacted the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and congressional offices after not hearing from him.

"We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being. His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected," the statement says.

Whelan's arrest comes amid increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

Last month, Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an agent for the Kremlin – and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. She has been in jail since her arrest in July. The Kremlin has denied Butina is a spy.
 
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