Judge Tanya Chutkan gave Butina 18 months in a US prison for actions she said were "sophisticated and penetrated deep into political organizations," threatening US national security. In practice, this means that Butina will serve another nine months, having been imprisoned since her July arrest.
The former American University grad student pleaded guilty last month to one count of conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent as part of a plea deal negotiated late last year. She sought immediate deportation to Russia following her sentencing, but the Daily Beast reported that won't happen until her prison sentence is completed.
"She looked shocked the whole time," Sputnik News analyst Nicole Roussell told Radio Sputnik's Loud and Clear Friday, noting that most people, including Butina's attorneys, expected her to be sentenced to time served and be expelled. "She's served nine months, and a lot of that has been in solitary confinement. This is for someone who — as the judge noted — never had any [prior convictions], is clearly hard-working, intelligent, had 24 letters of character and recommendation on her record. The judge noted a ton of positive stuff about her during the sentencing hearing, so it was definitely a little bit of a shock to see that [the judge] went entirely with the side of the prosecution and gave the full 18 months, meaning she has nine more in prison."
Butina spoke before the court Friday, saying, "My parents discovered my arrest on the morning news they watch in their rural house in a Siberian village," she said. "I love them dearly, but I harmed them morally and financially. They are suffering from all of that. I destroyed my own life as well. I came to the United States not under any orders, but with hope, and now nothing remains but penitence."
Butina's charge stems from her political lobbying work with the National Rifle Association — work the government says required her to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an obscure measure dating to the 1930s that's been revived in recent years in the interests of prosecuting foreign nationals and repressing alternative news sources. Sputnik, as well as RT, Xinhua and CGTN, have all been required to register under FARA due to their associations with the governments of other countries.
However, Butina isn't associated with the Russian government and didn't act on its behalf. She noted in a February interview that she never attempted to conceal her actions because she didn't believe she was doing anything wrong.
"Anyone who thinks that someone who wasn't Russian would be in this situation is fooling themselves," Butina's lawyer, Robert Driscoll, told Roussell Friday.
Roussell recalled Judge Chutkan saying to Butina in the courtroom: "No doubt you have suffered greatly due to the national atmosphere, including salacious details proven to be untrue."
"So she noted these things, and yet, went ahead and just agreed" with the prosecution, ignoring that those "salacious details" had been given to reporters by the prosecution, the most notorious of which was that she'd traded sex for information and political connections, Roussell said. Becker noted that such a charge would never be levied against a male suspect.
"I think it would apply very broadly to very large numbers of people," Driscoll told reporters Friday. "The government's theory that you act as an agent whenever you do anything for a foreign official — I think that is an extremely broad interpretation that can apply not only to people like Maria, but to other people. I think it's something that should be looked at. I think anyone who is a foreign national in this country should be exceedingly concerned by the government's position in this case and what they did here."
"This is a little bit different than some of the cases we've seen," Roussell told hosts Brian Becker and John Kiriakou. "When some of these FARA regulations started to be prosecuted, what, two years ago, we were all a little bit shocked — very shocked, actually — because this was a statute that had not really ever been regulated, hadn't really been criminally prosecuted. But even when they started to prosecute those FARA charges, it was for people who… there was a real case against them, even if it was something that was clearly politically motivated."
"In this case, she never lied; she never stole documents; she never funnelled money to the NRA; she cooperated; she was an extroverted student interested in political discourse," Roussell noted.
"The irony of this case is, the government believed her," Roussell said.
"When we look at the record, when we look at what was said, she wasn't a spy. She was not an agent of the Russian government, in the sense of ‘secret agent.' She was more of an agent in the sense of a principal agent," Driscoll said, noting that "if I buy you some opera tickets, I'm your agent."
"When we entered into the plea agreement, the understanding was that if she cooperated she would get a downward departure motion, but the government's decision not to try to apply guideline, and then jack up a base offense level, essentially took away the departure motion with their left hand while offering it with their right," Driscoll said. "So, the substantive effect of the departure motion was probably nil."
In other words, while promising Butina it would decrease the amount of time she would be sentenced to serve, the federal government chose to charge her with a more serious crime, increasing the amount of time she could possibly serve and then applying the deal from there, resulting in more time in prison for Butina than before.
Roussell said the precedent set by the case has "far-reaching implications."
"Maria could not have been prosecuted under civil FARA, which is the one that everyone knows about through [Paul] Manafort and other cases, because she had no knowledge of the statute," Driscoll explained to Roussell. "In order to be criminally prosecuted under FARA, you need to have a willful violation."
"So, because of her lack of knowledge, she ended up being charged with a more serious crime under the foreign agent statute. I think it's an area that's ripe for reform. If you take it seriously and literally, the government's position in this case, and applied it to other circumstances, you really end up in a pretty dangerous situation. Not only for foreign nationals here, but I think for Americans abroad doing similar activities, I think would not be thrilled with this," Driscoll explained.
Butina's lawyer also noted that, while Judge Chutkan invoked special counsel Robert Mueller's Russiagate investigation, his client was wholly unconnected to any events described in that report.
"She had nothing to do with the Mueller investigation. The Mueller team was aware of Maria, they were aware of this case, they interviewed her as part of her cooperation, and obviously she didn't appear anywhere in the Mueller report. I found it curious that that was mentioned, that what she did was during the time of Russian election interference, it was alleged by the judge, when in fact, had she been involved in any of that, I would imagine that special counsel Mueller would have mentioned it somewhere in his 400 pages if she had anything to do with it," Driscoll said. "But he did not."