MOSCOW (WASHINGTON POST) - An American arrested in Russia has been formally charged with espionage, a Russian news agency reported on Thursday (Jan 3), 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 quoted a person familiar with the situation as saying.
Russian lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov, who was appointed to represent Whelan, said the American will remain in custody in Moscow until at least Feb 28.
It was unclear whether court proceeding could begin before that date.
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.
It is believed Whelan also has Canadian citizenship. Ottawa confirmed a Canadian had been arrested in Moscow, but did not specifically name Whelan.
On Wednesday, the US ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, visited Whelan in a Moscow detention facility, marking the first contact US 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 US 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.
The two countries do not have an extradition treaty.
The arrest of and guilty plea by Butina, 30, have become a sharp thorn in the side of US-Russian relations.
Butina is the first Russian national to be convicted of seeking to influence US policy in the 2016 election campaign, and Moscow has gone to great lengths to paint her as a political prisoner.