Maria Butina, Russian who conspired to infiltrate conservative US political groups, sentenced to 18 months
WASHINGTON — Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina was sentenced to an 18-month prison term Friday in Washington after failing to register as a foreign agent for conspiring to infiltrate conservative US political circles for the Kremlin.
Butina, 30, pleaded guilty in December to conspiring with a senior Russian official to access the National Rifle Association among other groups from 2015 until she was arrested and detained in July. She will be credited for the more than nine months she already has served.
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan also granted a request to deport Butina to Russia after her prison term ends.
Butina was the first Russian national convicted of seeking to influence American policy in the run-up to the 2016 election, though her case was handled by the US attorney’s office for the District of Columbia and the Justice Department’s national security division, not by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Butina admitted to working as an undeclared agent of a foreign government, but she did not admit and was not charged with espionage in federal court proceedings.
In court before she learned her sentence, Butina said, ‘‘Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, in the United States or in Russia, and so I humbly request forgiveness.’’
She asked for a chance to go home, saying she had hoped for a career in international policy while studying at American University and to bolster her resume and build bridges between Russia and the United States.
‘‘The United States has always been kind to me, and though it was not my intention to harm the American people, I did that by not notifying the attorney general of my actions. I deeply regret these events,’’ said Butina, dressed in a green prison uniform and speaking clearly but emotionally. ‘‘Please accept my apology and allow me to begin again.’’
In her plea papers, Butina said she worked under the direction of Alexander Torshin, a former Russian government official, and with an American political operative on a multiyear scheme to establish unofficial lines of communications with Americans who could influence US politics.
Butina was motivated by good intentions of improving political relations, her attorneys, Robert Driscoll and Alfred Carry, wrote in a sentencing request April 19. They added that she was remorseful and ‘‘has done everything she could to atone for her mistakes through cooperation and substantial assistance.’’
After the hearing, Driscoll said he ‘‘disagreed strongly’’ with the sentence and said the case had been marked from the start by ‘‘complete and utter Russophobia.’’ He noted that the judge referenced Russian interference in the 2016 election in her remarks even though Butina was interviewed only once after her guilty plea by investigators working for Mueller. Her case also does not appear anywhere in the 448-page redacted Mueller report published last week.
At sentencing, the judge noted defense claims that Butina was a legitimate and hard-working graduate student, but said ‘‘she was not simply seeking to learn about the US political system. She was seeking to collect information about individuals and organizations that could be helpful to the Russian government, under the direction of a Russian official and for the benefit of the Russian government, at a time when the Russian government was working to interfere in and affect the American electoral process.’’
Butina’s networking with the NRA, help arranging a visit to Russia by NRA leadership, and other conduct ‘‘were all used to establish back channel lines of communication to advance Russian interests. The conduct was sophisticated and penetrated deep into political organizations,’’ Chutkan said.