US arrests Russian woman Maria Butina on conspiracy charges | News | DW | 17.07.2018
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US arrests Russian woman Maria Butina on conspiracy charges

The charges against Maria Butina relate to building relationships with officials and infiltrating organizations with influence in US politics. Court documents show her actions revolved around the 2016 election.

Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian woman who was arrested in Washington, DC, on Monday, has been formally indicted by a grand jury on charges of acting as an agent of the Russian government and conspiracy to take actions on its behalf, the US Justice Department said on Tuesday.

Butina was not charged with espionage or with being a member of a Russian intelligence service. The most serious charge she faces is that of acting as an agent of the Russian government, for which she could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The conspiracy charge can lead to a maximum five-year prison term.

The announcement of Butina's arrest and indictment came just hours after US President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and only a few days after special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officials over attempted hacking aimed at influencing the 2016 election.

Federal prosecutors allege that the 29-year-old was gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations and working to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin.

Court papers accuse Butina of collaborating in a conspiracy that began in 2015, involving an unnamed senior Russian official who "tasked" her with infiltrating American political organizations and "reporting back to Moscow."

Read more: Sergei Skripal: The former spy poisoned with a nerve agent

While the charges were brought forward by the US Attorney's Office and not Mueller, court papers reveal her activities revolved around American politics during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

The New York Times reported that during the 2016 campaign, Butina attempted to set up secret meetings between Trump and Putin twice.

Ties with gun rights organization

Butina had been featured in the US media before, due to her work in gun rights advocacy. In 2011, she founded a pro-gun organization in Russia called the Right to Bear Arms, and she has since been involved in coordinating between gun rights activists in the US and Russia.

According to court documents, an unnamed American who worked with Butina claimed he was involved in setting up a "private line of communication" before the 2016 election between the Kremlin and "key" officials in an American political party through a "gun rights organization."

Read more: Opinion: The new digital insecurity

The papers do not name the political party, but do contain details that appear to refer to the Republican Party, while the gun rights organization is widely reported to be the National Rifle Association (NRA). The court documents, however, do not confirm that a back channel was ever successfully established.

Links to Russian politician

The Justice Department said Butina had strong links to a "Russian official," who was not identified in the court documents but has been widely reported to be Russian politician Alexander Torshin, the deputy head of Russia's Central Bank and an ally of Putin.

Torshin, who became an NRA life member in 2012, was among a group of Russian oligarchs and officials targeted in April with Treasury Department sanctions over their association with Putin and their roles in "advancing Russia's malign activities."

Read more: Vladimir Putin: 'Russia does not want to split EU'

Both Torshin and the Russian Central Bank have declined requests for comment on the allegations.

Allegations 'overblown'

Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, said the allegations were "overblown" and prosecutors had criminalized mundane networking opportunities.

Driscoll said Butina was not a Russian agent, but was actually on a student visa in the US, where she was attending the American University and studying to earn a master's degree in international relations.

"There is simply no indication of Ms Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law or the United States  — only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations," Driscoll said in a statement. "The complaint is simply a misuse of the Foreign Agent statute, which is designed to punish covert propaganda, not open and public networking by foreign students."

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law/kms (AFP, AP, dpa)

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