Moscow, Jan 9 (AFP) The Kremlin on Wednesday denied Western allegations that it is using Paul Whelan, an American held in Russia on suspicion of espionage, as a pawn in a political game.

“Russia never uses people as pawns in some diplomatic game,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded in comments to journalists.

Russia “carries out counterintelligence activities against those who are suspected of espionage,” Peskov said. “This is done regularly.” He spoke after British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Friday that Whelan, who also holds British, Irish and Canadian passports, should not be used as a pawn in “diplomatic chess games”.

Analysts have speculated that Whelan, 48, was arrested to pave the way for a possible spy swap with a Russian agent arrested abroad, possibly Marina Butina, a gun rights campaigner who was convicted of being a “foreign agent” in the United States last month.

Russia’s FSB security service arrested Whelan, a security official at a US auto parts company and former US Marine, on December 28, saying that he was caught “while carrying out an act of espionage”.

Whelan’s family said he was visiting Moscow for a friend’s wedding and US security experts have raised doubts over whether he was a spy.

The New York Times has reported that the Marine Corps court-martialed Whelan in 2008 on charges of larceny and passing bad checks, an offence that in most cases disqualifies candidates from foreign intelligence work.

Whelan’s Russian lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said his client had been charged with espionage, although deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov later said Whelan has not yet been formally charged. Espionage is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

The US ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, has visited Whelan at Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

The British, Canadian and Irish embassies have also been granted consular access to Whelan, his family said Tuesday. (AFP) SMJ SMJ

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.