The arrest of a Michigan corporate security executive on espionage allegations in Russia seemed to his family like a horrible mistake, a misunderstanding that could quickly be resolved with help from the U.S. government.

But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Nearly six months later, and despite extensive U.S. efforts on his behalf, Paul Whelan is entangled in a Russian legal system so opaque that the evidence against him remains unknown. His brother, David, says the family has had only limited contact with him and no idea when, or if, he will be released.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, center, who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, waits for a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 24, 2019. The American was detained at the end of December for alleged spying. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, center, who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, waits for a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 24, 2019. The American was detained at the end of December for alleged spying. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

The Whelan case has become a lesson on the limits of American power to help a U.S. citizen charged in a hostile country. The 49-year-old faces a sentence of 20 years on a charge of espionage.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, right, who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, is escorted for a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 24, 2019. The American was detained at the end of December for alleged spying. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, right, who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, is escorted for a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 24, 2019. The American was detained at the end of December for alleged spying. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, waits for a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 24, 2019. The American was detained at the end of December for alleged spying. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, waits for a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 24, 2019. The American was detained at the end of December for alleged spying. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)