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American Paul Whelan charged with espionage in Russia, news agency reports

Paul Whelan, shown here in Iceland, was arrested in Russia on espionage charges. Whelan, 48, is a retired U.S. Marine. Family Photo

MOSCOW - An American arrested in Russia has been formally charged with espionage, a Russian news agency reported Thursday, moving the case into Russia's justice system and possibly deepening the diplomatic tensions with the United States.

The Interfax news agency report on Paul Whelan's status could not be independently verified. "An indictment has been presented. Whelan dismisses it," Interfax reported, citing a person familiar with the situation.

There was no immediate comment from Russian officials, but Interfax and other Russian news agencies have been used to give the first word on some sensitive domestic issues.

Russian lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov, who was appointed to represent Whelan, was quoted as saying the American will remain in custody in Moscow until at least Feb. 28. It was unclear whether court proceeding could begin before that date, or where Whelan could be held after February.

"His well-being is good. He's making jokes," state-run media quoted Zherebenkov as saying. Whelan will stay "quarantined" at Moscow's Lefortovo detention facility before being transferred to a general cell after Russia marks Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7, according to Zherebenkov.

Whelan, 48, who was born in Canada and once served in the Marines, was detained last week by Russia's domestic security services while he was in Moscow for what they described as a "spy mission."

Whelan's family denies the claims and have said they fear for his safety. Whelan was in Moscow to attend the wedding of a fellow former Marine, his family said.

It is believed Whelan also has Canadian citizenship. Ottawa confirmed a Canadian had been arrested in Moscow, but did not specifically name Whelan, citing privacy concerns.

If convicted, Whelan could serve between 10 and 20 years behind bars in Russia. Rights defenders have criticized Russian espionage law for being too broad.

Zherebenkov has said there were not sufficient grounds for his arrest.

His case is the latest crisis to arise between Washington and Moscow, who are at loggerheads over a range of issues from election interference to the wars in Syria and Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman Jr., visited Whelan in a Moscow detention facility, marking the first contact U.S. officials have had with him since he was arrested at a hotel during a visit to attend a wedding in the Russian capital.

The visit came a few hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he expected officials from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to be given access to Whelan within hours. Pompeo said they need to learn more about why Whelan was detained last Friday.

The timing of Whelan's arrest - coming weeks after Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina pleaded guilty to Kremlin interference in the United States - has raised questions about a potential swap. Moscow has gone to great lengths to paint Butina, 30, as a political prisoner.

Her guilty plea further blighted Russia's relationship with the West. The U.S. and Russia do not have an extradition treaty. Butina is the first Russian national to be convicted of seeking to influence U.S. policy in the 2016 election campaign.

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This article was written by Amie Ferris-Rotman, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Emily Rauhala contributed to this report.