With her older brother now on trial in Moscow after being held in a Russian detention center for more than a year, each day is a struggle for Margaret Aaron of Huntsville, Ala.
“It’s been very, very tough on our whole family,” Aaron told ABC News anchor Linsey Davis during an interview on ABC News Live Prime on Tuesday. “It’s just something that’s on your mind every day and [it] weighs on you very heavily.”
Aaron’s brother, David Barnes, was taken into custody in Russia’s capital at the beginning of 2022, accused by law enforcement there of abusing his two sons in Harris and Montgomery counties in Texas years earlier, even though Barnes is not facing charges in either Houston-area county.
Although Aaron and her relatives have been able to exchange letters with Barnes, she says she has not been able to speak with her brother since his arrest.
Barnes could now face a lengthy sentence in a Russian penal colony if convicted by a Moscow judge at the conclusion of his ongoing bench trial.
“We would appreciate any help that we could get to get him back home,” Aaron said, adding that she hopes her brother could be classified by the U.S. as being “wrongfully detained” and that he could be brought back through a prisoner exchange.
Barnes has pleaded not guilty and is being represented in court by Gleb Glinka, an attorney who practices in both the United States and Russia.
A 65-year-old resident of The Woodlands in suburban Montgomery County, Barnes traveled to Moscow around a month before his arrest. After his wife left for Russia, Barnes was designated the sole managing conservator by a court in Texas, making him the primary guardian of the children. However, because the kids weren’t in the country anymore, he says he went to Russia to see them, but was not intending to try to bring them back to the U.S. at that time.
“He wanted to make an effort to try to see his children,” Aaron told Davis. “He had not seen them in three years.”
The children were allegedly taken out of the U.S. on March 26, 2019 by Barnes’ Russian ex-wife, Svetlana Koptyaeva. As ABC News has previously reported, Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, considers the children to have been missing since that date.
This followed a contentious child custody and divorce process that lasted for years, along with reports in which Koptyaeva accused Barnes of abusing the children. Barnes was investigated for child abuse in Montgomery County after the concerns were raised, but prosecutors found no basis to file charges against him.
However, after Koptyaeva allegedly fled the U.S. with the boys, Montgomery County law enforcement did open an interference with child custody case against her and she remains wanted in Texas on a felony warrant. Although currently jailed, Barnes still is considered to have custody of the children based on a Texas judge’s 2020 order.
Koptyaeva continues to say that the children were abused, telling ABC News in part in an email on Tuesday, "there was enough evidence, including several psych evaluations, to take the case to court. The boys and I passed several separate psych evaluations and results were the same — the boys are not lying."
"I was protecting the boys when the U.S. system failed to keep them safe," Koptyaeva added. "We had to [run] away from the U.S. so that the boys didn't have to suffer from sexual abuse anymore, leaving everything behind. The charges for child custody interference against me were filed after we ran away."
Meanwhile, Barnes’ family maintains that he is innocent of the allegations against him.
"There was no evidence, no proof to support these claims," Aaron said. "He loved those children."
While Americans Brittney Griner, Sarah Krivanek, Taylor Dudley, and Trevor Reed were all released from Russia over the last year, Barnes remains incarcerated in the country, along with other U.S. citizens such as Marc Fogel and Paul Whelan. However, Barnes is the only one of these Americans who was accused by Russian prosecutors of wrongdoing on U.S. soil, despite a lack of charges in a U.S. court.
Barnes’ trial began in November and testimony began last week, with Koptyaeva and her mother taking the stand in a Moscow courtroom. Since the trial is occurring on occasional days over a period of several months, Barnes is not scheduled to return to court to face a judge until Feb. 22.
Representatives for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow last visited Barnes in his detention center in December, a U.S. State Department spokesperson told ABC News.
When asked by Davis if she has a message for the highest-ranking government officials in the U.S., Aaron said, “Just please bring my brother home.”