(CNN) – When dual US-Russian citizen Ksenia Karelina boarded a flight from Istanbul to Russia in January, the last thing on her mind was that she would find herself behind bars weeks later on treason charges, her boyfriend told CNN’s Brianna Keilar Wednesday.

Karelina “had no fear, she was so proud to be going home… she’s so proud of Russia,” boyfriend Chris Van Heerden said, adding that the 33-year-old was excited to see her elderly grandparents in her hometown of Yekaterinburg. “She did not have a worry in the world,” he added.

It had been several years since the Los Angeles resident had returned to Russia, he said, which is why he bought her a ticket to Russia as she was feeling homesick. The pair had been on a four-day holiday to Istanbul. She went on to Russia, while he returned to California – and that’s when he discovered she had been detained.

At first, he said, her detention was only brief. Russian authorities took her cell phone then released her and she was able to see her family and contact him.

Even three weeks later, just before she was due to return to the US, Karelina had told Van Heerden that things were okay, that authorities had said she could leave the country and that “I can come and get my phone.”

The former boxing champion never heard back from Karelina, an esthetician who had for years been a “semi-pro ballerina.”

Karelina was arrested in Yekaterinburg on charges of treason for allegedly donating just $51 to a Ukrainian charity, according to the spa in California where she worked.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed she had been “providing financial assistance to a foreign state in activities directed against Russia security.”

But Van Heerden said his girlfriend was “so proud to be Russian,” and that she never spoke about Russia’s two-year invasion of Ukraine – “she doesn’t watch the news, she doesn’t intervene with anything,” he said.

If found guilty, Karelina could face a possible 20 years in prison, an idea Van Heerden said she would find particularly hard as she was “so full of life.”

A Tuesday hearing on her case was postponed due to Karelina not having legal representation. Her boyfriend said lawyers were “afraid to just touch” her case, adding that they had found one that was willing to help but only for “an insane amount of money.”

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help with the fees.

Despite it all Van Heerden said he was hopeful the US would not give up on her. “I believe in America. I do believe that America will bring her back to me and that’s the hope I’m holding on to,” he said.

Held as leverage?
Commenting on Karelina’s case, the Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov told CNN that the main goal of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) was “to build up a bank of hostages with American passports.”

He said Moscow would use it “as leverage” in any future negotiations with Russia.

Moscow has detained several US citizens in recent years, and Karelina’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.

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