Alleged Russian agent Maria Butina seeks dismissal of charges

Posted at 1:52 PM, Nov 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-15 17:47:07-05

Alleged Russian agent Maria Butina asked a federal judge on Thursday to throw out the criminal case against her.

Butina, 30, was charged in July with two counts related to her activities in the US, which prosecutors allege broke federal law because she was secretly acting on behalf of the Kremlin and was working at the direction of a senior Russian government official. She has pleaded not guilty.

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“The government contends Maria is a Kremlin agent because she shared her memorable American happenings and naïve, youthful optimism for better Russian-American relations with others, including an individual claimed to be ‘Russian Official,’ who did not employ her, pay her, request her to pursue better relations between the two countries, or exert any control over her daily activities,” Butina’s lawyers wrote in their 28-page request to Judge Tanya Chutkan of the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

In grandiose language, Butina’s lawyers argued that the evidence against her is so weak that if that conduct is criminal, “scores of people are unknowingly violating this statute” against acting as an agent for a foreign government without informing the Justice Department.

If Chutkan doesn’t throw out the full two-count indictment, Butina’s lawyers want the judge to force prosecutors to drop one of the charges. They say the prosecutors violated the Double Jeopardy Clause of the US Constitution by charging Butina with two crimes for the same conduct.

The separate charges “afford the government an unfair advantage by increasing the likelihood that the jury will convict on at least one count, if only as the result of a compromise verdict,” Butina’s lawyers told the judge.

Butina has been in an Alexandria, Virginia, jail since her arrest in July. Despite pleading from Butina’s lawyers, the judge previously ruled that Butina must stay in jail until her trial because she is a significant flight risk.

Prosecutors previously said Butina spent years infiltrating US political groups at the behest of her mentor, Kremlin-linked banker Alexander Torshin, to push the groups to adopt a friendlier position toward Russia. Prosecutors also said Butina and Torshin tried to use their contacts at the National Rifle Association to set up back-channel communications between candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Butina’s lawyers repeated their claim on Thursday that she “came to the United States as a student to better her career and make connections all on her own volition.” She received a graduate degree from American University this year.

Prosecutors have faced some hurdles in their case against Butina. For one, they acknowledged in September that they had misunderstood some of Butina’s text messages when they accused her of trading sex for access to influential political circles.

Butina’s legal team did not raise any concerns about that mix-up in its motion to dismiss the indictment on Thursday.

Butina is one of more than two dozen Russian citizens charged this year with interfering with US politics, though the vast majority of the other cases were brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating interference in the 2016 US election. Butina’s case is unique, though, in that she is the only Russian appearing in court, because she was caught on US soil.

Representatives from the Russian Consulate have taken a special interest in her case, appearing at some of her hearings in Washington. According to court filings, her arrest and detention has been the subject of some diplomatic communications between the US State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry.

This story has been updated.