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Trial begins for David Barnes, Texas man detained in Russia

(MOSCOW) — A Texas father being held in Russia on accusations that were not substantiated by law enforcement in his home state of Texas is now facing trial before a Moscow judge.

Ten months ago, Russian police took David Barnes into custody and alleged that between 2014 and 2018 he committed child abuse in suburban Houston. His trial began on Nov. 16.

“Their trials seem to be like a circus,” said Margaret Aaron, Barnes’ younger sister. “I’m praying to God for a miracle.”

Barnes flew to Moscow in late 2021 to attempt to argue in Russian family court for visitation rights or custody over his two sons, like he had been granted by a judge in Texas, his family and friends say.

“He was the type of dad that you would never see the kids just sitting in front of a computer or a tablet,” Barnes’ friend Chris Schiller said. “His kids were his world.”

‘Chances are thin’

Svetlana Koptyaeva, Barnes’ Russian ex-wife, had allegedly taken the boys out of the United States in 2019, prompting Texas authorities to charge her with felony interference with child custody.

Instead of obtaining rights to see his children in Moscow, Barnes was arrested and has been held in Moscow’s Detention Center 5, where Trevor Reed was also detained. Aaron said her brother is being held in a 12-person cell.

Over the summer, Rep. Kevin Brady attributed Barnes’ detention to “political purposes.” U.S. officials have not announced whether they have classified Barnes’ detention as wrongful, as they have in the cases of detainees Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

The trial for Barnes is occurring on nonconsecutive days. Proceedings were previously scheduled to begin in September and October, but according to his family, they were postponed each time after reports of a transportation issue.

“I am focusing my energies on winning my case,” Barnes wrote to relatives. “Even though the chances are thin, I think we could and should win.”

‘It tore him apart’

Russian prosecutors are accusing Barnes of abusing his two sons years ago in Texas’ Montgomery and Harris counties, court documents show.

Similar allegations were previously reported by Koptyaeva, his ex-wife, to Texas authorities during their divorce proceedings — but the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services closed a 2018 investigation after finding insufficient evidence to verify the claims against Barnes.

Prosecutors in the counties that are now at the center of the Russian trial also did not find cause to file charges against him.

“There are still no charges in Montgomery County related to David Barnes,” Kelly Blackburn of the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office told ABC News on Friday.

A 2017 settlement signed by Barnes and Koptyaeva said in part that while not waiving legal reporting requirements, Koptyaeva was “to refrain from making statements, either written or oral, to any third party, alleging that … [Barnes] … molested his minor child and/or engaged in improper sexual contact with his minor child.”

Less than two years following the settlement, records show Barnes called police to ask for welfare checks on the two boys, but they were nowhere to be found. Interpol considers the children to have disappeared on March 26, 2019, the same date Koptyaeva allegedly left the U.S. with them.

“It tore him apart,” Schiller said. “I think his faith in God kept him grounded.”

In a September email to ABC News, Koptyaeva continued maintaining that the children were abused by her ex-husband.

“We left everything, our friends, the boys’ school, our house, my job, everything,” Koptyaeva said in part. “We were running away just to protect the boys. Do you really think that a person would take two kids and go into [the] unknown, without [a] job, without any source of income, into nothing just to hurt someone?”

Koptyaeva remains wanted in Texas on a felony interference with child custody warrant, Blackburn confirmed.

‘I may not ever see my brother again’

Russian judicial filings list that Barnes is due back in court Dec. 15.

“We are monitoring Mr. Barnes’ case closely, and we remain in regular communication with Mr. Barnes and his family and legal team,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told ABC News. “We have visited Mr. Barnes four times since his arrest in January 2022. Our last visit to Mr. Barnes in detention was on August 18, 2022.”

Testimony has yet to begin in his trial, but Barnes’ siblings are concerned that should he be convicted, he could end up in a Mordovia penal colony like the ones where Griner, Whelan and Reed were sent.

“He’s probably better off where he is now than being shipped off to a labor camp,” his older sister Carol Barnes said. “I may not ever see my brother again.”

ABC News’ Tanya Stukalova contributed research to this report.

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