Russian 'agent' Maria Butina released from US prison

A 2013 file photo shows Mariia Butina speaking at a press conference in Moscow.
A 2013 file photo shows Mariia Butina speaking at a press conference in Moscow.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Maria Butina, the Russian gun advocate who built a network of high-level Republican contacts before being arrested for spying, was freed from US prison on Friday (Oct 25) after serving nine months, the Bureau of Prisons said.

Butina was handed over to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau and was expected to be deported back to Russia, where she has been celebrated by the government as a victim of unjust, politically motivated charges in the United States.

The only Russian arrested and convicted in the three-year investigation of Moscow's interference in US politics, Butina parlayed ties with the NRA firearms lobby into a network of high-level Republican allies.

That network brought her into contact with President Donald Trump before his 2016 election, as well as with one of his sons.

The 30-year-old native of Siberia said she was on a quest to establish better relations between Russia and the United States, and enrolled in university in Washington while living with a Republican operative.

She attended political rallies and NRA conventions, often with her powerful Moscow sponsor Alexander Torshin, a politician close to President Vladimir Putin.

Her social media was full of pictures of her posing with various firearms around the United States, in some dressed in camo with an assault rifle and, in one, as a cowgirl with a giant six-shooter.

And she had her picture taken with some of the country's conservative elite: NRA head Wayne LaPierre, senator Rick Santorum, Wisconsin Governor Scott walker, and President Donald Trump's son Don Jr.

But she was arrested in July 2018 on allegations she was engaging in espionage, though she had no connection with Russia's established spy agencies.

In December, Butina entered a plea deal on a charge that she acted as an illegal, unregistered foreign agent, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, half of which was credited as already served.

 
 
 

The Russian foreign ministry made her into a cause celebre, placing a picture of her with the word "Free Butina" at the top of its social media pages.

There was no immediate comment from Butina or her lawyer, but Russian media said she was expected back as early as Saturday.

CASE REMAINS MURKY

Even with her release, her case remained murky. US prosecutors watered down early allegations that she was an operative of Russia's intelligence agencies, and described her only as funded by senior politician Torshin.

But they maintained that she had a mission to infiltrate US political circles in an operation to "spot and assess" potential espionage targets.

Part of that involved becoming the live-in girlfriend of a mid-level Republican operative who sponsored her as a graduate student at American University in Washington.

"There is no doubt that she was not simply a graduate student," Assistant US Attorney Erik Kenerson told the court.

But Butina maintained that, guided by Torshin, she genuinely sought to create people-to-people channels of cooperation and fell victim to a higher level of intrigue relating to Russian election interference.

She told NPR radio from jail that, while a graduate student in politics at American University, she had only sought to be involved in "civil diplomacy."

"I never hide my love to my motherland neither to this country... I love both countries, and I was building peace."

SPY SWAP?

Her future in Russia remained unknown. There was some speculation that Moscow's arrest of an American, Paul Whelan, last December for alleged espionage was a tit for tat and that her release could lead to his.

But Whelan's brother David told AFP this week that it appeared Moscow could want much more in return for Paul Whelan's release, including a possible swap for other US-jailed spies and the reopening of two Russian-leased estates in New York and Maryland that were forced closed in 2017 in retaliation for Russian election meddling.

Nevertheless, Whelan tweeted on Friday: "I wish the very best for Ms. Butina and much joy for her reunion with her family. We look forward to the same opportunity with Paul in the future."