14:31 GMT30 March 2020
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    The legal counsel who represented Russian national Maria Butina told Sputnik Monday the US government’s treatment of his client was intended to give the impression she was a spy. Butina returned to Russia Saturday following more than a year in a US prison.

    Butina returned to Moscow Saturday after being imprisoned for over a year at the Tallahassee Federal Correctional Institution for a single charge of conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent.

    Robert Driscoll, who leads the Washington, DC, office of the law firm of McGlintchey Stafford and represented Butina, told Radio Sputnik’s Loud & Clear Monday that the US government’s treatment of Butina was “absurd.”

    “She was never charged as a spy ... but I think the government either thought or wanted to give the impression she was a spy from the way they treated her. They arrested her without warning. I had been in touch with the US Attorney's Office, we knew there was an investigation before, her apartment had been searched. I said, ‘Look, we’re transparent. I can give you all the documents you need. I'll sit down, I’ll possibly bring her in. You can talk to her. You can see there’s nothing to this.’ And they just wouldn't return my calls and eventually arrested her in July of 2018 - and even more shockingly, said she’s a flight risk and moved to deny bail, which is amazing for a student who had no money, who had rented a U-Haul to go to South Dakota,” Driscoll told hosts John Kiriakou and Brian Becker.

    “I was very shocked that the government took that position,” he continued, also noting that the “notion that she was a flight risk was absurd” because there were many opportunities she could have taken to flee but didn’t.

    After being arrested in Washington, DC, on charges of acting as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of the Russian government, Butina initially pleaded not guilty. In December 2018, after a prolonged period of solitary confinement, she entered a plea deal on a single charge of conspiring to act as an illegal foreign agent. The original charge of acting as an unregistered agent was dropped as part of the agreement with prosecutors, Sputnik reported.

    “The sentencing was complicated and unfortunate in my view, but the government did give her what is called a 5K1.1 letter, which is a substantial assistance letter authorizing the judge to enter a lower sentence if the judge wanted to, and the prosecution doesn’t give those to you if they think you’re lying. So they clearly believed her when she said she wasn’t a spy, that she wasn’t working for the Russians, that she wasn’t directed by a Russian intelligence agency. They knew all of that, and yet they persisted with seeking what I thought was an outrageously long sentence … they knew that she didn’t know of any obligation to notify the attorney general,” Driscoll added.

    Butina was charged under US Code § 951, which states: “Whoever, other than a diplomatic or consular officer or attaché, acts in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification to the attorney general … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both,” according to Cornell Law School.

    “No one in the history of this statute has ever notified the attorney general that they are in the country acting as a foreign agent, because what it’s designed for - it’s essentially a legal hook. It’s designed for when the government finds an actual sleeper agent in the country so they can arrest that person without waiting for them to do any espionage. So they make it a crime to be in the country as a foreign agent without having notified the attorney general,” Driscoll said.

    Butina has been likened in the media to Anna Vasilyevna Chapman, a Russian intelligence agent who was arrested in the US on June 27, 2010, for espionage on behalf of the Russian Federation's external intelligence agency. However, according to Driscoll, there are no similarities between the two, because in Chapman’s case, there was evidence of conspiracy.

    “There was nothing resembling that in her [Butina’s] case. There were no dead drops. There were terabytes of info that the government got out of her [Butina’s] apartment. And you know how many classified documents they found? Zero,” Driscoll said. “The government acknowledged to me directly that nothing she did in the US was illegal but for the absence of the registration.”

    The Department of Justice had also accused the Russian national of trading sex for favors in the DC political sphere, but later retracted those comments.

    “The sex stuff was utter BS. There was no basis to it … there was no evidence for it. The government acknowledged that, but as you said, the damage is done online,” Driscoll added.

    According to Driscoll, Butina is just happy to be home now, though she has “mixed views” about the US. “Overall she likes the American people, and she likes the country. Not surprisingly, she’s got her qualms about the justice system at this point,” he noted.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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