US charges against Russian Butina ‘unfounded’: Kremlin

Mariia Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization, speaks during a press conference in Moscow in this Oct. 8, 2013 file photo. — AFP

MOSCOW — The Kremlin on Friday rejected as unfounded the US case against Russian national Maria Butina, who has pleaded guilty to acting as an illegal foreign agent in the United States.

“We consider the accusations against her as absolutely unfounded,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had “reasons to believe” the Russian had been kept in conditions designed to break her will and lead her to enter a false guilty plea.

“As far as I understand, this plea bargain — the likes of which are common in the US — is part of a deal to get free and return home as soon as possible,” Lavrov said in comments reported by agencies.

Butina — the first Russian convicted in the sprawl of cases arising from Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election — faces likely deportation after a potential sentence.

Prosecutors said she launched a plan in 2015 to develop ties with the Republican Party with the aim of influencing US foreign policy.

The plot was allegedly guided and financed in part by Alexander Torshin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin who was deputy governor of the Russian central bank until his retirement on Nov. 30.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier in the week said he had asked Russian security services who Butina was.

“Nobody had heard anything about her. The only thing was that she did some work in the upper house of parliament for a while,” Putin said.

Butina was arrested in July this year and became a minor cause celebre in Russia, with the foreign ministry putting her picture at the top of their Twitter account with the hashtag “#FreeMariaButina”.

She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to not register as an agent of a foreign government, a charge often used against foreign spies. But there was no evidence presented that she worked for any of Moscow’s espionage agencies.

The conspiracy charge, and prosecutors’ vouching for her cooperation in a broader investigation, suggested others could be charged in relation to her case.

She is due to remain in US custody until her sentencing in February or later. — AFP