(CN) – A Mexican scientist entered an initial plea of not guilty Tuesday on charges that he went on an espionage mission in Miami on behalf of the Russian government.
Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, an award-winning molecular biologist, is accused of spying on a U.S. intelligence informant in a Miami condominium community.
The FBI claims Cabrera made arrangements in December to lease out an apartment near the informant’s unit, wiring $20,000 for rent and a down payment. In February, Cabrera allegedly flew to Miami and snapped photos of the informant’s license plate at the behest of a Russian official.
He was subsequently detained on Feb. 16 upon trying to leave Miami International Airport for Mexico City.
At his arraignment Tuesday in the Southern District of Florida, Cabrera entered his not-guilty plea, flanked by veteran trial attorney Ron Gainor, a former Miami federal prosecutor who has been practicing white-collar crime and high-profile trial defense for 30 years.
Cabrera had a public defender representing him in the initial February proceedings, but he has since retained Gainor and attorney Amber Donner as his defense counsel.
So far, Cabrera has deferred bond and agreed to remain in the Federal Detention Center in Miami. Gainor said by phone that in the coming days, he will be reviewing Cabrera’s options for potential pretrial release. He described Cabrera as a “very accomplished scientist and scholar” but declined further comment.
According to the arrest documents, Cabrera allegedly told the FBI during an interview that he was sent on the surveillance assignment by a Russian official, who had approached him in mid-2019 while he was visiting family members in Russia.
Allegedly, the official indicated that if Cabrera did surveillance work for the Russian government, travel restrictions — which were preventing Cabrera’s family members from leaving the country — could be lifted.
Prosecutors claim Russia may have targeted the Miami-area informant for surveillance because he or she had provided information to the U.S. about Russian intelligence operations.
The court documents do not specify whether Cabrera allegedly knew that he was spying on a U.S. government informant.
Cabrera is facing a count for illegally acting as an agent of a foreign government, a charge which carries a maximum 10-year sentence. He is charged with a conspiracy count as well.
According to his online professional profile, Cabrera, a Mexican citizen, attended Kazan Federal University in Russia before studying at Justus-Liebig-University Giessen in Germany. He has contributed to dozens of scientific publications related to molecular biology, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory responses and immunology.
Cabrera was working as a researcher in Singapore in the time leading up to his arrest, according to the court documents.