American David Barnes' conviction in Russia 'based on lies,' sister says

"Our justice system doesn't work in other countries like it may work here."

ByABC News
February 14, 2024, 12:59 PM

On Tuesday David Barnes of Texas became the latest American to be convicted and sentenced in a Russian court on what experts say are trumped-up charges with little evidence.

Svetlana Koptyaeva, Barnes' ex-wife and a Russian national, accused him of sexually abusing their two sons between 2014 and 2018.

Barnes denied the claims and Texas authorities found insufficient evidence to charge him.

In March 2019, Koptyaeva ran off with the boys, to Russia, and Barnes followed them there. He said he was trying to re-establish contact and get visitation rights through the Russian courts; however, Russian authorities arrested him and charged him with abusing the boys in Texas.

David Barnes, 65, of Texas is seen here walking into court in Moscow, Russia, on Jan. 19, 2023.
ABC News

A Russian judge found Barnes guilty on Tuesday and sentenced him to 21 months in a penal colony.

Barnes' sister Margaret Aaron spoke with ABC News' "Start Here" Wednesday about the case and how her family is dealing with the fallout of her brother's sentence.

START HERE: Margaret, what was your reaction when you heard this verdict and sentence?

MARGARET AARON: We were devastated because we always had hope. You can't not have hope that he would be acquitted. So we were just crushed. There's no evidence. They are basing this on claims that Svetlana made while they were living in Texas that were unfounded, [and] that were baseless. He was never convicted of anything in Texas. So, there's no evidence. There's nothing for him to be convicted for.

START HERE: Yeah. Did the Russian authorities, did they go back to the Texas investigators and say, "Hey, what do you have? Here's what you got. Like compare notes?"

AARON: No. They're basing it on her accusations. The prosecutors there offered information to David's attorney, but the conviction is not even based on that. It's based on lies.

START HERE: I know this is a difficult question to ask, but I should ask. Is there any chance in your mind David did, in fact, abuse his children?

AARON: Absolutely not. He loved his children. They were taken away from him when they were in Texas. He spent three years trying to find them after she fled to Russia. He did find them and he went over there. I mean, he risked his life to go over there to try to actually see them. He had hired an attorney to help him do this. So, no, he loved them.

START HERE: Well, and that's what's so singular about this case, right? Regardless of even how the investigation went in Texas and what they found in Texas, the fact that Russia would be like, "We're going to have our own trial based solely on witness testimony about something that happened somewhere else." That seems like the takeaway here. What happens to your brother now? Do you have any sense?

AARON: Well, there will be an appeal. And that's all we know right now.

START HERE: The sentence is to send him to what, a penal colony, right? Do you have any idea what that entails?

AARON: No I don't, other than it's bad. It will be worse than where he is at right now. He's been in, they call it a detention center, but it's a prison. He's in a small room with, I believe, it's nine other men. It has been up to 12 or 13. You couldn’t survive on the food they feed you there.

You have to get supplemental food sent in which we have to take care of and order. He may or may not get that food because… something happens to it on the way to him, because look what you're dealing with. So he's very worried about his nutrition. He doesn't get to go outside. They get one shower a week. He didn't even get a change of clothes, and he was in the same clothes for two years.

But he is very, very strong. He makes sure that he reads, reads books, you know, keeps his mind active. And he is incredibly strong.

START HERE: I was going to say a lot of, some of this sounds so similar to the circumstances of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, who was actually released a while back. I am wondering what your family is hoping to see from the U.S. government going forward here.

AARON: Bring him home. We're trying to get him on the wrongfully detained list. They have all, the State Department has all the information they need to do that, but they have not done it yet.

David Barnes appears in a courtroom for sentencing, Feb. 13, 2024, in Moscow.
Anastasia Bagaeva/ABC News

START HERE: This is like a list where it says we officially consider you wrongfully detained therefore we start the process of trying to bring you home?

AARON: Yes, yes, you have to submit the application, yes, which has been done, but we have not heard a word. It's been probably nine months ago. Step in, take action, do an exchange, something.

START HERE: Yeah and we reached out to the State Department. They responded with a statement saying they "have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas." They said they were shut out of this trial for the last week and that they still need to complete a fact-based review of the case. But Margaret, I guess I'm left wondering, I don't know if you have an answer to this. If Russia does, in fact, impose this sentence and this goes forward, what message does that send to the rest of the world in your eyes?

AARON: Our justice system doesn't work in other countries like it may work here. Be careful where you go, and where you travel. But David did it for love and just the love for his children that he did not want to give up. A lot of people wouldn't have done that. But he had to.