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Russia arrests US-Russian citizen for treason after she gave $51 to Ukraine, employer says

<i>Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images/File</i><br/>Moscow has arrested several US citizens in recent years
Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images/File
Moscow has arrested several US citizens in recent years

By Sebastian Shukla, Nathan Hodge, Anna Chernova, Maria Kostenko and Christian Edwards, CNN

(CNN) — A US-Russian dual citizen was arrested in Russia on charges of treason for allegedly donating just $51 to a Ukrainian charity, according to the Californian spa where she worked.

Ksenia Karelina, a 33-year-old woman who lives in Los Angeles, was arrested in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg for allegedly “providing financial assistance to a foreign state in activities directed against Russia security,” according to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

Video shared by Russian state media RIA Novosti showed what appeared to be Karelina with a hat pulled over her eyes being escorted by a security official before being handcuffed and appearing in a courtroom holding cell.

Karelina, who became a US citizen in 2021, entered Russia on January 2 but the US did not learn of her arrest until February 8, a US official said.

She is accused of donating $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity in the US, according to a statement from her employer, a spa at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.

“Ciel Spa management and team is devastated to share that our beloved esthetician and friend, Ksenia Karelina, has been wrongly accused, arrested, and [is] currently being held in the Russian Prison system,” the statement said.

“Ksenia, a dual citizen, went to Russia to visit her 90-year-old grandmother, parents and younger sister. She has been accused of treason for allegedly donating $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity in the US.”

Chris Van Heerden, Karelina’s boyfriend, told CNN he had bought her tickets to visit the country for her birthday so that she could see relatives and she was very excited to go there.

He also said that she was “proud to be Russian, and she doesn’t watch the news. She doesn’t intervene with anything about the war.”

Asked about the possible 20-year prison sentence she now faces, he said it hurts and that “she’s so full of life. She needs to be out there, needs to be with her friends..she loves life.”

“I believe America will bring her back to me,” Van Heerden added.

The State Department on Tuesday said it was aware of Karelina’s detention and that the US has not been granted consular access to her.

“Russia does not recognize dual citizenship, considers them to be Russian citizens first and foremost, and so oftentimes we have a difficult time getting consular assistance, but we will pursue it in all matters where a US citizen is detained,” State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a press briefing.

The FSB also accused Karelina of taking part in “public actions to support the Kyiv regime” while in the US. “Operational search activities and investigative actions continue. The court chose a preventive measure in the form of detention for the accused,” it said.

The Sverdlovsk Regional Court press service told RIA her hearing was meant to take place on Tuesday, but due to the absence of a lawyer it has now been postponed until February 29.

New York-based non-profit Razom for Ukraine, the organization Karelina reportedly gave funds to, said it was “appalled” by reports of her detention.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly shown that he holds no sovereign border, foreign nationality, or international treaty above his own narrow interest,” said Razom’s CEO Dora Chomiak in a statement posted on social media Tuesday.

Razom urged the US government to “do everything in its power” to demand the release “of all those unjustly detained by Russia,” Chomiak said.

She added that Razom is a US-based and funded charity that conducts activities “in keeping with our charitable purpose and our legal obligations as an American charitable organization,” which it said were “focused on humanitarian aid, disaster relief, education and advocacy.”

In a post on Russian social media platform VK in November 2021, Karelina shared a picture of herself standing between two American flags and waving a paper flag of her own as she celebrated becoming a US citizen. Her VK profile said she graduated from the Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg in 2014, and that she also studied at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Other images of Karelina have emerged showing her modeling for the stock photography company Shutterstock, including some that show her posing as a ballerina In New York City in 2017.

US citizens detained in Russia

Moscow has detained several US citizens in recent years, and the woman’s arrest came on the same day that the Moscow City Court upheld American journalist Evan Gershkovich’s extended pre-trial detention until March 30.

Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was arrested in Yekaterinburg in March last year on charges of espionage, which he, his employer and the US government have strenuously denied. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently suggested “an agreement can be reached” with the US to exchange Gershkovich for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a life sentence in Germany for murdering a former Chechen fighter in Berlin in 2019.

“Listen, I’ll tell you: sitting in one country, a country that is an ally of the United States, is a man who, for patriotic reasons, eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals,” Putin said in an interview earlier this month with the right-wing American pundit Tucker Carlson.

In December 2022, Russia released US basketball star Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap that involved Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Griner, who had for years played in Russia during the WNBA off-season, was detained in February of that year on drug smuggling charges at a Moscow airport.

Former US Marine Paul Whelan was also sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020 after being convicted on espionage charges that he vehemently denies.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Arlette Saenz and AnneClaire Stapleton contributed reporting

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