The Maria Butina criminal investigation, cruel and futile as it has been, seems to be approaching resolution. I wrote in some detail in Off-Guardian on 29 July about the 15 July arrest by the FBI in Washington DC of a 29-year-old Russian national, a postgraduate student in Washington DC and gun enthusiast, Maria Butina.
I was not expecting Maria Butina to be still languishing in solitary confinement in a high-security prison in Virginia awaiting trial as an agent of foreign influence, over four months later. Yet this is what has happened to this unfortunate young aspiring lobbyist for better US-Russian relations.
The Russian Government considers her, with good cause in my view, to be an innocent political prisoner who has been sorely mistreated – 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 harsh 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 grossly vindictive and defamatory in its reporting on Butina, e.g., watch 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 , hopefully today (but already delayed twice).
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 2015-16, 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 has continued to visit her. She was initially, and again recently, being held in harsh solitary confinement. Her lawyers report, I am sure truthfully, that her mental condition has deteriorated in jail and she has had no treatment for this. Her official jail photo (above) 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 endeavouring, through harsh prison treatment, to break her morale, 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.”
Maria’s father, a steadfast defender of her innocence, said she will not incriminate herself or anyone else. But she may now have no choice but to do so.
The NY Times, which said it had seen the court papers laying out the plea deal, but has not published or detailed them, says that she has agreed to plead guilty to ‘conspiring to act as a foreign agent’. It is not clear from this whether she is pleading guilty to both charges §371 and §951, of which the former conspiracy charge reportedly carries risk of up to a five year sentence.
If the judge were now to accept a plea of guilty only under the latter charge §951 of failing to register as a foreign agent, which entails possible sentencing up to six months, a best-case scenario is that Butina could be released and deported home to Russia quite soon in view of her time already served awaiting trial – hopefully, even in time for the Russian Christmas 6 January?
There is much US media speculation over the nature of Butina’s offered plea bargain – to which the judge must first agree – and how events might transpire from here. The NY Times (op.cit). reports that a condition of the plea deal is that,
Butina must cooperate with federal, state and local authorities in exchange for what could be a short prison term, or possibly a release after having already spent five months in jail.”
Butina may come under intense pressure to testify that her overt dealings with Torshin and Erickson in 2015-16 constituted a ‘conspiracy against the US’. No great significance should be attached to whatever she may say publicly at this point of extreme pressure on her. This poor young woman has suffered greatly, unjustly, at the hands of the US ‘justice system’.
She needs to get home to safety and recovery. She has borne her unjust and cruel imprisonment heroically. Her accusers and their MSM cheer-squad are the people who should be ashamed of themselves for their persecution of this 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 mounting 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 just 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 stitch-up by paranoid 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 – currently 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 and help with making contacts from Mr Erickson , and from her freely sharing with others her hopes and plans for better US-Russian relations, and from her taking on an active and conspicuous public lobbying role to this end. Memo to my Russian and Chinese friends in Australia – be careful how you engage in politics in Australia.
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 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.
As we await final directions from Judge Chutkan, an argument has broken out in US MSM as to whether Butina was ‘tortured’ – a word recently used by Zakharova in an exclusive CNN interview but strenuously denied by CNN.
However, everything Zakharova says as Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson about Butina’s treatment in prison is supported by American MSM public reports over the past five months. Butina was initially, and is again now, in harsh solitary confinement. She was awakened every half hour under suicide watch rules. She was fed bad food, kept in a cold cell without blankets, denied exercise and sunlight and medical care, visitation rights were restricted to once a week.
It seems she was not physically tortured in the strict sense of the word but her prolonged harsh and vindictive treatment 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.
She was and is a political prisoner and has been treated like a terrorist. Politically aware Russians will remember this case with particular rage. No American imprisoned in Russia on whatever charge has ever thus been treated by the Government of Russia.
This case has done great damage to prospects for improved Russia-US relations. What has been gained by the US? Nothing.
UPDATE 14/12/18: Judge Chutkan today approved the agreed plea deal. She set a status conference for 12 February under a single charge of “conspiracy to violate 18 USC § 951, in violation of 18 USC § 371”, with a sentencing guideline of 0-6 months if Butina is deemed to have sufficiently cooperated with prosecutors’ inquiries. If she is lucky, she could then be released to return home to Russia. Meanwhile, she remains in prison and under duress: American justice.
Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin is the author of Return to Moscow ( UWA Publishing, 2017)
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