Butina cooperating with prosecutors in plea deal

Maria Butina, an accused Russian spy who nuzzled up to the National Rifle Association before the 2016 election, has begun cooperating with federal prosecutors after agreeing to a plea deal, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Posted: Dec 12, 2018 4:14 PM
Updated: Dec 12, 2018 4:14 PM

The Russian government claims that Maria Butina, the accused Russian spy who had cultivated connections with the National Rifle Association before the 2016 US election, was "tortured" while in US custody.

In an exclusive interview with CNN Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova alleged that Butina was treated to a "medieval inquisition" while in detention and said the Russian government viewed her as a "political prisoner" who had been targeted by zealous American officials. But Zakharova failed to provide any evidence to support her assertions.

"We designated her as a political prisoner from the very first days," Zakharova said.

"It's not about justice, it's not justice. It's just inquisition. It's medieval inquisition. Because she is intimidated, she was tortured and was not treated like a human being, not like a woman. I think she was treated and is still treated probably as a terrorist or something like that," she added.

The US attorney's office declined to comment because the case is pending.

Butina, 30, was charged this summer for illegally acting as a foreign agent for Russia and accused of trying to create a back channel for Russia through activist groups, including the National Rifle Association.

Her case became public on July 16, the same day US President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, further stoking controversy about Russian efforts to meddle in US political affairs.

Zakharova has dismissed the case as politically motivated, saying: "All the circumstances of that case were political and that is obvious. She is just a normal human being, she was staying in the United States of America, having relationships with different people on different matters within the law and in respect of the American law. And she did nothing wrong, she is not a criminal, not a terrorist ... We have no idea why she was treated like that."

"All the details of that case was closely connected with (the) political relationship between Russia and the United States because all that happened just after two presidents met each other and held negotiations and of course that was (more) evidence that this is a political case and she is a political prisoner," Zakharova said.

Related: Tracking the Russia investigations

Butina, who is currently jailed in Alexandria, Virginia, has been moving toward a deal with federal prosecutors, with a plea agreement hearing expected on Thursday.

Her cooperation will mainly focus on telling investigators about the role of her boyfriend Paul Erickson and her interactions with her Russian handlers, CNN reported Tuesday.

A spokesman for the US Attorney's office in Washington DC declined to comment for that story. Butina's lawyer also declined to comment. A lawyer for Erickson also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the agreement, revealed to CNN, Butina "agreed and conspired, with a Russian government official ('Russian Official') and at least one other person, for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of Russian Official without prior notification to the Attorney General."

Until this week, Butina maintained her innocence and insisted she was a foreign student interested in bettering relations between the US and Russia. Butina previously pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy and a second count of acting as an agent of a foreign government when she was arrested in July.

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