Ksenia Karelina's boyfriend speaks out as LA woman accused by Russia of treason remains in custody

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Friday, February 23, 2024
Boyfriend of LA woman arrested in Russia speaks out in interview
The boyfriend of a L.A. woman arrested on charges of treason in Russia is pleading for her safe return.

The boyfriend of a Los Angeles woman spoke out in an emotional interview Thursday as she remains in custody in Russia after being arrested and accused of treason.

Ksenia Karelina, a 33-year-old employee of Ciel Spa in Beverly Hills who holds both U.S. and Russian citizenship, was detained Jan. 27 in the city of Yekaterinburg in central Russia. She was then jailed in early February for allegedly organizing fundraisers for Ukraine's military, attending pro-Ukraine rallies, and posting messages against Russia's war in Ukraine, according to Russian state media.

But even though a longstanding agreement between the U.S. and Russia requires both countries to immediately notify the other if one of their nationals is detained, officials in Washington had virtually no information about her case when she was publicly identified by the FSB -- Russia's Federal Security Service -- earlier this week.

"It all feels like a dream, like a nightmare," Karelina's boyfriend, Chris Van Heerden, said in an interview with ABC News.

Karelina, a former ballerina, goes by the name Ksenia Khavana in the U.S.

Russian authorities have released a video purportedly of Karelina following her arrest -- a clip showing a woman with a white hat pulled over eyes being escorted through a hallway and handcuffed by a masked security guard, put in a car, and then placed in a cell.

Karelina's employer in Beverly Hills and Russian media outlets have said that the treason charges levied against her stem from a $51.80 donation she made to a Ukrainian charity. If convicted, she could face up to 20 years in prison.

Russian authorities have reportedly detained a Los Angeles woman on suspicion of treason because of her efforts to support Ukraine, including a $51 donation to charity.

Van Heerden said he bought Karelina her ticket to Russia for her birthday so that she could visit her family.

"I got a letter from her yesterday but I still haven't spoken to her since the 27th of January," he said. "It's a romantic letter.

"As she's doing that, the only thing she cares about is me. ... She's apologizing to me for putting me in this situation," Van Heerden said, his voice choking with emotion. "She doesn't care about herself, she cares about everyone else."

Van Heerden says she is very kind and is not political, and that she is trying to stay strong while incarcerated. He says the family is trying to get an attorney for another hearing on Feb. 29.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow were working to learn more and gain access to Karelina -- a provision stipulated by the same agreement that requires notification.

However, Miller set low expectations, saying that in recent history, Russia has not recognized any dual U.S.-Russian national's American citizenship.

"We have pressed it at a number of levels," he said on Wednesday. "We don't have a lot of regular engagements with the Russian government now, but our embassy continues to raise it on a regular basis."

While cutting off U.S. officials' access to the detainee obscures information about specific cases, it also inhibits diplomats' ability to assess the well-being of prisoners who often must endure weeks or months of harsh conditions behind bars between public court appearances.

Despite the State Department's blunt warnings against visiting Russia, its travel alert does not explicitly warn dual citizens about the treatment they will almost certainly face if they are detained.

In a clause regarding Moscow's 2022 decree on military conscription, the U.S. alert warns that Russia "may refuse to acknowledge dual nationals' U.S. citizenship."

ABC News contributed to this report.