US & Canada

Maria Butina: Russian agent released from US prison

Maria Butina appears in a police booking photograph released by the Alexandria Sheriff"s Office in Alexandria, Virginia Image copyright Alexandria Sherrif's Office via Reuters
Image caption The Russian is being held in Tallahassee, Florida

A Russian woman who admitted acting as an agent and infiltrating US political groups has been freed from a Florida prison and will be deported.

Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months earlier this year after admitting to a single count of conspiracy, but was given credit for time already served.

The 30-year-old pro-gun activist tried to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA) to influence policy.

Russian officials say she is expected to arrive in Moscow on Saturday.

Butina was released from a low-security prison in Tallahassee, and is being transferred to a migration centre in the city of Miami to be deported.

Her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, earlier said he had been given little information about her release.

"They tend to do these things like they're moving a nuclear bomb, and they're not," he told the Washington Examiner.

Mr Driscoll said two US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents would escort Butina until she was on her way to Moscow.

Who is Maria Butina?

According to her social media profiles, Butina was born in the southern Siberian city of Barnaul in 1988 and studied political science at university.

She is said to have been a weapon enthusiast since childhood and went on to be involved in politics and promoting gun rights - founding a Russian lobby group called the Right to Bear Arms.

Butina also travelled back-and-forth to the US for NRA conventions. In 2015 she attended a Trump campaign event in Las Vegas, asking the presidential candidate about his views on US sanctions in Russia.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Maria Butina hosted NRA officials in Moscow

In 2016 she moved to the US on a student visa to study for her Masters at American University in Washington DC.

But Butina was arrested by the FBI in July 2018 and charged with acting as an agent of the Russian Federation "without prior notification".

Why was she charged?

The charge largely stemmed from her links to one of her gun group's members, Alexander Torshin - an influential former member of the Russian senate and deputy chairman of the Russian Central Bank who officials said she was directed by and worked with.

Mr Torshin has been put under sanctions in the US and has been investigated over allegations he funnelled money to the NRA to gain influence in US conservative politics.

According to the FBI, in 2015 Butina emailed a US Republican lobbyist Paul Erickson, who she reportedly dated and lived with, a project proposal called "diplomacy". It centred around using NRA links to influence the US Republican Party's foreign policy and their traditionally hostile stance toward Russia.

Earlier this year Republicans in the US Federal Election Commission (FEC) blocked further investigation of Mr Torshin and alleged illegal funding to the NRA from Russians, prompting criticism.

Image copyright Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation Handout
Image caption The NRA are influential donors to US Republican politicians

Butina initially pleaded not guilty to the charge against her, but later admitted her guilt as part of a plea deal in December 2018.

Although unnamed in the plea deal, Mr Torshin was clearly the unnamed Russian official she admitted to working with to pursue backdoor channels of communication to American conservatives who could influence US politics. He has never been charged.

During her sentencing hearing Butina expressed regret at her actions, telling the court: "I destroyed my own life."

Despite the prosecutor's claims that she had damaged US national security, Butina maintained she had no intention of harming the American people.

Image copyright William Hennessy
Image caption Maria Butina addressed the judge directly at her hearing on 26 April

The Russian government described the case as "fabricated" and Vladimir Putin himself described her jailing as an "outrage".

"With this we really hope that the hardest phase of the Russian woman's life will end," the Embassy of Russia in the US said in a Facebook post on Thursday. "We want her to be reunited with her nearest and dearest as soon as possible."

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