18:25 GMT22 June 2021
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    The United States government retracted its claim that Russian national Mariia Butina had traded sex in exchange for a position at a public interest organization late on Friday. The judge in the case, Tanya S. Chutkan, said on Monday that it took her a mere five minutes to realize the evidence of it was a joke.

    Butina is accused by the US government of acting and conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent of the Russian Federation and was arrested on July 15, although it wasn't announced until the following day while US President Donald Trump met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

    After government prosecutors, led by Assistant US Attorney Erik Kenerson, withdrew their claim that Butina, 29, had used her body to advance the interests of the Kremlin, her defense attorney, Robert Driscoll, filed a motion for the government to reconsider allowing her release on bond. 

    In the motion, Driscoll slammed the charges against his client, calling it a "legally and factually weak case based upon an esoteric theory brought against a young woman." On July 25, Driscoll told the court that he doesn't believe the sex allegation against his client to be true, complaining that the government had not offered any evidence to substantiate them but that the claim had nonetheless, become the "big issue in the media."

    In an August 24 court filing, Driscoll wrote that the charge painted his client as "some type of Kremlin-trained seductress, or spy-novel honeypot character."

    Chutkan agreed with that characterization during a Monday hearing on the case, calling the charge "notorious" and commenting that it received "a lot of attention" and damaged Butina's reputation and hurt her family, Sputnik News heard in court. "It took me five minutes to review the evidence and tell they were joking," Chutkan told the government. "It was apparent on its face."

    Chutkan went on to admonish the prosecutors, telling them that she was "dismayed" and "concerned," that "someone at the US Attorney's Office or at the Department of Justice could look at those exchanges and conclude they were serious."

    She told them that starting the case with allegations so "salacious" made it difficult for Butina to get a fair trial, as the rumors could taint the jury pool, which she said later was "relatively small" in DC.

    But the judge handed down lectures to both sides on the case. Previously, Chutkan warned Driscoll in July against making certain kinds of claims to the media in violation of court rules. She said that the defense had "overstepped" and "crossed a line" by opining on his client's innocence and criticizing the evidence against her in his remarks to the press. She conceded that the government shared blame in his behavior, as he was trying to push back on false claims, but imposed a gag order against him anyways.

    While the defense was gagged on Monday, hours before the status hearing, ABC News published its account of "dozens of pages of email correspondence between August 2015 and November 2016, obtained exclusively by ABC News" that reveal Butina's "hand in a pair of potentially explosive projects." Since those documents are not available publicly, it is likely that they were leaked.

    Nonetheless, ABC conceded several paragraphs into their story that Butina's efforts were "amateur" and actually raised "questions about the extent and authenticity of her Kremlin connections."

    Chutkan also denied Driscoll's motion to review whether Butina could be released on bond. She upheld previous reasoning by Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson on July 18 during Butina's pre-trial detention hearing that she presented a flight risk and could be escorted to an airport in a car protected by diplomatic immunity and could leave the country. Chutkan suggested that repeated and "vocal" calls for Butina's release by the Russian government indicated a connection between her and them.

    While the sex-for-access narrative has been demolished by its own constructors, the government said in its filing that there is still reason to believe Butina's commitment to her boyfriend, Republican political operative Paul Erickson, is dubious. On Monday, Driscoll attempted to introduce three pieces of video evidence in arguing for her bond that, by in-court accounts, seem to validate Butina's fidelity, which the defense believes should never have been in question. In the first video, Butina and Erickson are said to have lip-synced songs from "Beauty and the Beast." In the second two videos, Butina's mother and father sent birthday wishes to Erickson in 2017. Chutkan did not allow for any of those videos to be submitted.

    Butina has spent much of her time since her arrest in de-facto solitary confinement. Her next status hearing is set for November 13; a trial date has not yet been set. Before then, Driscoll hopes to have discrepancies in the government and his team's translations of Butina's messages resolved so that a single document is used in trial. He said the government's translations were arguably suggestive.


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    Russian national, court, sex, spying, spy, Political Prisoners, Mariia Butina
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