Print
Rate this article
(votes: 2, rating: 5)
 (2 votes)
Share this article
Tony Kevin

Former senior Australian diplomat, RIAC Expert

The Maria Butina criminal investigation, cruel and futile as it has been, is at last nearing resolution. In a brief hearing on Thursday 13 December, US judge Tanya Chutkan approved a plea deal negotiated between Butina and US federal prosecutors. Under the deal, Butina agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the law governing foreign agents operating in the United States. The exact wording of the plea deal document is:

“Your client agrees to plead guilty to count 1 in the indictment, charging your client with conspiracy to violate 18 USC § 951, in violation of 18 USC § 371.”

Politically aware Russians will remember this case with particular anger. No American imprisoned in Russia on whatever charge has ever thus been treated by the Government of Russia.

This case has damaged prospects for improved Russia-US relations. What has been gained from it by the US Government? Nothing.

The Maria Butina criminal investigation, cruel and futile as it has been, is at last nearing resolution. In a brief hearing on Thursday 13 December, US judge Tanya Chutkan approved a plea deal negotiated between Butina and US federal prosecutors. Under the deal, Butina agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the law governing foreign agents operating in the United States. The exact wording of the plea deal document is:

“Your client agrees to plead guilty to count 1 in the indictment, charging your client with conspiracy to violate 18 USC § 951, in violation of 18 USC § 371.”

This charge could carry up to a five-year prison term, but the plea deal contained complex language setting out a sentencing guideline in the range of 0-6 months in prison, followed by deportation, if Butina now cooperates sufficiently with prosecutors’ inquiries in their judgement. 

Judge Chutkan ruled after a brief hearing that a status conference be held on 12 February. It thus appears that Butina will remain in prison for the next two months, while cooperating with prosecutors. She will hopefully then be released and deported home to Russia.

I wrote in some detail in Off-Guardian on 29 July about the 15 July arrest by the FBI in Washington DC of this 29 year old Russian postgraduate student in Washington DC and gun enthusiast, Maria Butina.

I was not then expecting Maria Butina to be still languishing in solitary confinement in a high-security prison in Virginia as an alleged agent of foreign influence, over four months later. Yet this is what happened to this unfortunate young aspiring lobbyist for better US-Russian relations.

The Russian Government considers her, correctly in my view, to be an innocent political prisoner who has been sorely mistreated by US authorities — a victim of current American elite Russophobia.

On 22 July, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told US Secretary of State Pompeo that Butina, arrested in the US on 15 July , one day before the Helsinki Summit began, under accusations that she was a Russian agent, had been detained on ‘fabricated charges’ and should be released. The Russian Foreign Ministry in ensuing months steadily upped the pressure, with regular prison visits to Maria whenever they could, and press updates by an increasingly outspoken Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, who commented officially on 5 December:

Update on Maria Butina

 We are outraged by the pressure that the American authorities are exerting on Russian citizen Maria Butina, who was arrested in the US last summer on trumped-up charges. Once more, her detention terms have been toughened. She is in solitary confinement for 22 hours per day. Ms Butina is not receiving proper medical care. We consider this an attempt to intimidate and break her down ahead of the court hearing — I should note once again on a fabricated case — scheduled for December 19.

Russian diplomats in Washington take every effort to support Ms Butina, visiting and calling her on a regular basis. They have sent a resolute protest to the prison officials, demanding that this degrading treatment stop. A note containing a strong demarche in this connection has been sent to the Department of State. 

We will continue demanding the release of Ms Butina, who is a victim of this blatant outrage ...”.

**

On 10 December, news broke dramatically in US media (which has been vindictive and defamatory in its reporting on Butina, watch for example any Rachel Maddow MSNBC commentary to get the full nasty flavour) that Butina had agreed a plea deal with US federal prosecutors, which was to be submitted for approval to Judge Tanya Chutkan.

The initial indictment in July had charged Butina with one major charge — conspiracy to act as an agent of foreign influence (18 USC §371), and one lesser charge — failing to register as an agent of foreign influence (18 USC § 951). See my earlier Off-Guardian essay.

These charges were framed around Butina’s alleged role in an alleged covert Russian influence-seeking operation in the United States in 2015–2016, through her cultivating National Rifle Association (NRA) personal contacts to try to influence the imminent Trump Administration to view Russia more favourably. Butina allegedly reported regularly on her lobbying activities to her friend and financial patron, a wealthy senior Russian bank official (now retired), Alexander Torshin. Her main contact in the NRA and Republican Party was her said-to-be lover, a middle-aged American politician, Paul Erickson. Despite frantic FBI efforts to seek evidence of covert operations or spying, her contacts with Torshin and Erickson in her social media and open emails were overt and proudly acknowledged as such. Nevertheless, these contacts were considered by US prosecutors as evidence of a ‘conspiracy against the US’.

During her five months imprisonment, Erickson continued to visit her. Though he has so far not been targeted by US prosecutors, this could now change.

Butina was initially, and again recently, held in harsh solitary confinement. Her lawyers reported that her mental condition deteriorated in jail and that she had had no access to treatment for this. Her official jail photo taken in August shows her suffering. Her knowledge of her powerlessness in the face of a hostile and vengeful US State justice system, which was determined through harsh prison treatment to break her spirit, would have affected even the bravest person.

President Trump has not so far bothered to comment on her case.

President Putin recently tweeted:

“She faces 15 years of imprisonment. For what? When I first heard about this, I questioned all the heads of the Russian special services. Who is this? No one knows anything about her.”

A best-case scenario now is that Butina could be released and deported home to Russia in February, if she cooperates sufficiently with federal, state and local authorities in their enquiries over the next two months. Butina will come under pressure to agree that her overt dealings with Torshin and Erickson in 2015-16 constituted a ‘conspiracy against the US’.

But no significance should be attached to whatever words she may be pressed to agree to over the next two months. This young woman has suffered greatly, and unjustly, at the hands of the US ‘justice system’ and is still in their power. She needs to get home to safety and recovery. She has borne her unjust and cruel imprisonment heroically. Her accusers and their mainstream media cheer-leaders are the people who should be ashamed of themselves, for their persecution of this innocent young woman.

The episode has further lowered the US state’s standing in Russian eyes. It is hard to see how this could get much lower anyway, after Trump’s consent to escalating anti-Russian sanctions, and his disappointment of the initial hopes Russians had placed in him as an East-West peacemaker. He is now seen in Russia as another war-mongering US President: a weak mouthpiece of the Russophobic US national security establishment. It is hard to disagree.

Watching this sad story from Australia, a compliant US ally, I am struck by how easily any naive young Australian political activist of Russian or Chinese background could become embroiled in a similar prosecution by Australian national security law enforcement agencies, under Australia’s new foreign influence laws which are closely modelled on the American laws that ensnared Butina.

The Australian government has admitted to the relevant Parliamentary committee that the enforcement of these new laws will be entirely at the government’s discretion as to what cases shall be investigated and prosecuted. People working to improve relations with Australia’s currently presumed enemies of the day — Russia and China — need to watch their behaviour carefully, not to enter into any working relationships of a kind that could be construed by hostile investigators as a ‘conspiracy’.

Meanwhile, such relationship-building conduct is regarded by authorities as quite normal in the cases of countries with which the Australian political culture feels comfortable — the US, Britain, and Israel being the most obvious examples.

In my own public efforts to make the case for improved Australian governmental relations with Russia and China, I am careful to ensure that nothing I say or write could be construed as indicating any ‘conspiracy’ or ‘collusion’ with any Russian or Chinese national who was not an exempt accredited diplomat.

Maria Butina’s vulnerability arose from her accepting financial support from Mr Torshin; her accepting help from Mr Erickson in making NRA and Republican Party contacts; her freely sharing with Americans her hopes and plans for better US-Russian relations under a Trump presidency; and her taking on an active and conspicuous public lobbying role to this end. Memo to my Russian and Chinese friends in Australia — please be careful how you engage in politics in Australia.

Alexei Fenenko:
New Mobilization?

The absence of any Australian MSM or human rights lobby interest in Maria Butina’s cruel treatment over the past six months (and the general elite indifference here to the cruel mistreatment in London of Australian asylumseeker Julian Assange) warns of the dangers any of us could face, if we do not behave with prudence in such contentious areas of policy activism. Orwell’s ‘1984’ is not so far away as some may think.

A dispute has already erupted as to whether Butina was ‘tortured’ — an accusation recently levelled by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zakharova in an exclusive CNN interview on 12 December. Zakharova alleges that Butina was treated to a "medieval inquisition" while in detention. She says the Russian government views Butina as a "political prisoner" who had been targeted by zealous American officials. "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.

CNN alleges Zakharova “failed to provide any evidence” to support these assertions. I disagree. Everything Zakharova says about Butina’s mistreatment in prison is supported by American mainstream media published reports over the past five months. Butina was initially and again in recent weeks placed in harsh solitary confinement. She was in the early weeks awakened every half hour under suicide watch rules; fed bad food; kept in a cold cell without blankets; denied exercise and sunlight and medical care; and visitation rights were rigidly restricted. It seems she was not physically tortured in the strict sense of the word but her prolonged harsh and vindictive treatment while waiting over five months for her repeatedly delayed trial amounted to ‘torture’. We do not know what interrogation techniques were used. We will be told one day.

Politically aware Russians will remember this case with particular anger. No American imprisoned in Russia on whatever charge has ever thus been treated by the Government of Russia.

This case has damaged prospects for improved Russia-US relations. What has been gained from it by the US Government? Nothing.

Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin is the author of ‘Return to Moscow” (UWA Publishing, 2017)

Rate this article
(votes: 2, rating: 5)
 (2 votes)
Share this article
 
For business
For researchers
For students