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US prosecutors seek 18-month term for Russian Butina

By AFP - Apr 20,2019 - Last updated at Apr 20,2019

This photo from the Alexandria, Virginia, sheriff’s office shows Maria Butina’s booking photograph from August 17, 2018; prosecutors want her to serve an 18-month term for working as an undeclared (AFP photo)

WASHINGTON — US prosecutors are seeking an 18-month jail sentence for a Russian gun-rights activist who pled guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent by infiltrating conservative American groups on behalf of her government.

Maria Butina, who is 30, has cooperated with prosecutors since pleading guilty in December to working as an undeclared agent of Russia.

She is the first Russian convicted in the sprawl of cases arising from Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

But while she was interviewed by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling, her case arose from an earlier operation and was handled by the US attorney for the District of Columbia.

In a court filing on Friday, prosecutors said that they were lowering their sentencing recommendation by six months “based on [Butina’s] substantial assistance to law enforcement”.

But her lawyers argued in their own filing that the young woman deserves credit for the nine months she has already spent in detention. Upon her sentencing, which is set for April 26, she should be immediately deported to Russia, the lawyers said.

Butina had predicted early in the last presidential campaign that Donald Trump would be the next US president, and she sought ways to gain influence through conservative groups with the ultimate goal of influencing US foreign policy.

A gun lover, she managed to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA). Working at times with then-boyfriend Paul Erickson — a longtime Republican operative — she organised trips to Moscow for leading NRA members.

She supported Trump and associated with other Republican candidates. Butina was even photographed with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son.

While pursuing a master’s degree at American University in Washington, she hosted “friendship dinners” for prominent influence-makers, part of a campaign to persuade leading politicians to take a less confrontational approach to Russia.

But prosecutors eventually dropped early sensational accusations that Butina had traded sex for secrets.

The Kremlin has called the accusations against Butina “absolutely unfounded”.

There has been speculation that Russia detained former US Marine Paul Whelan with an eye to an eventual swap for Butina. Whelan, 48, was taken into custody in December by the Russian FSB security service. 

While his family said Whelan was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding — and refers to his detention as a state-sanctioned “kidnapping” — the FSB said he was caught in possession of a USB stick with sensitive information. Whelan’s relatives say he thought the stick had vacation photos.

Moscow has rejected the idea Whelan could be exchanged for any US prisoner.

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