US court sentences Russian agent Maria Butina to 18 months

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FILE PHOTO: National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

Maria Butina, the only Russian arrested and convicted in the three-year investigation of Moscow’s interference in U.S. politics, was sentenced on Friday to 18 months in prison.

The leader of a small Russian gun rights group, the 30-year-old Siberian native used her ties to the National Rifle Association firearms lobby to build a network of powerful Republican contacts.

She had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without registering — a so-called “espionage-lite” charge the Justice Department has used before against alleged Russian spies.

Prosecutors said that although she worked openly and was not tied to any Russian intelligence agency, she was sending back reports to a high-level Russian government officials and posed a threat to the United States.

“I humbly request forgiveness. I’m not this evil person depicted in the media,” she told the court in Washington before her sentence was announced.

Dressed in a dark blue pajama-like prison uniform, her long red hair pulled behind her shoulders, the young woman’s voice broke as she addressed the court in fluent, Russian-accented English.

She said that she had only wanted to work towards better U.S.-Russian relations.

“I wanted a future here in international policy,” she said. “If I had known to register as a foreign agent I would have done so.”

Butina was given the full prison term requested by prosecutors, though she was given credit for having already spent nine months in jail.

She will be deported after she completes her sentence.

Moscow on Friday denounced Butina’s jailing, saying the accusations against her were “totally invented” and the conviction is a “shameful stain” on the U.S. judicial system.

“The accusations brought against her, intended to influence the internal political process in the United States, are totally invented and fabricated,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Butina “has been forced to accuse herself because of the harsh conditions of imprisonment and the threat of an enormous prison sentence”, it added, accusing the U.S. judicial system of enacting a “direct political order.”

“Our compatriot was condemned just because she is a Russian citizen,” it said. Butina was the “victim of a tough confrontation between different political forces in the United States and a frenzied anti-Russian campaign in the spirit of McCarthyism.”

Butina’s case played out in the context of strains between Moscow and Washington over what U.S. intelligence says was a concerted effort by Russian spy agencies to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, using hacking and social media manipulation to help President Donald Trump to victory.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged 25 Russians with conspiracy for those activities, but, with all of them believed to be in Russia, none have been arrested.

Prosecutors admitted that Butina had nothing to do with those cases.

But as first a gun rights campaigner who attended NRA events and invited top gun lobby officials to Russia, and then as a graduate student in Washington living with her boyfriend, a Republican and NRA activist, prosecutors claimed she was part of a deliberate “spot-and-assess” intelligence operation to identify possible recruitment targets.

Her activities brought her in contact with top Republicans, including Trump at a rally in 2015, where she was chosen to ask the then-candidate about U.S.-Russian relations.

Butina regularly sent back updates on her activities to her main sponsor Alexander Torshin, at the time a senior Kremlin politician and central bank deputy governor who had accompanied her to several NRA conventions.

“There is no doubt that she was not simply a graduate student,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson told the court.

“She was simultaneously trying to make contacts…. for the benefit of the Russian Federation.”

Steven Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russian operations, said her operating out in the open was simply an innovative tactic in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “broader hybrid-warfare influence operation.”

“She’s part of the Kremlin’s plan to try to weaken the United States and the West,” he said.

Butina’s lawyer Robert Driscoll, a prominent Republican attorney, said she had broken no law besides the registration statute and that she would not have been prosecuted had she not been Russian.

“We disagree strongly with the court’s sentence,” he said. “Anyone who thinks someone who wasn’t Russian would be in this situation is fooling themselves,” he told reporters after the sentencing.

It remained to be seen whether Butina’s sentencing would impact the case of Paul Whelan, an American corporate security expert who was arrested in late December while in Moscow for a wedding and accused of espionage.

Some Russian experts said his arrest was retaliation for that of Butina.

Whelan’s brother David doesn’t believe the two cases are related.

But before Butina’s sentencing Hall, formerly of the CIA, said Washington “has to take into account that they do have an American over there, and we have a Russian here.”

“So is there not a deal to be had?” he said.