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Russian agent Butina returns to Moscow after US deportation

Accused Russian spy Maria Butina appears to reach plea deal
Posted at 6:45 AM, Oct 26, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — The woman convicted of being a covert Russian agent returned to her homeland on Saturday, deported by the United States after serving a prison sentence.

Maria Butina, a gun rights activist who sought to infiltrate conservative U.S. political groups and promote Russia's agenda around the time that Donald Trump rose to power, was released Friday from a low-security facility in Florida. She had been in custody since her arrest in July 2018.

In brief comments to journalists at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after arriving on an Aeroflot flight from Miami, Butina thanked her supporters. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers and rested her head on the shoulder of her father, Valery, who had come from their Siberian hometown of Barnaul to meet her.

"I am very, very, very happy to be back home. I am very grateful to everyone who supported me — all the Russian citizens who helped and wrote me letters and donated money for my defense," she said.

The former American University graduate student pleaded guilty last December to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for Russia. She admitted that she and a former Russian lawmaker worked to leverage contacts in the National Rifle Association to pursue back channels to American conservatives.

Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman, who also met Butina at the airport, said the 30-year-old is a victim of entrenched anti-Russian attitudes.

"This is what, unfortunately, the previous U.S. administration started — trying to destroy the bilateral relationship," Maria Zakharova said. Since the election of President Donald Trump, Russian officials have consistently blamed troubled relations on so-called "Russophobia" carried over from the administration of President Barack Obama.

"She really did no harm to anybody. She's just a girl, she's just a young woman. She tried to invest her youth, if you wish, her gift, her talent, into people-to-people contacts," Zakharova said.

Butina's case was highly criticized in Russia and the foreign ministry underlined the position by using her face as the avatar on its Facebook page. That was changed to the Russian double-eagle symbol after her return.

Butina violated U.S. law because she did not report her efforts to the Justice Department, which requires the registration of lobbyists and others in the U.S. who do the bidding of foreign governments. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison but received credit for time already served.

Her lawyers said Friday that she was not a spy and that the case had nothing to do with espionage or election interference. They cast the crime as more technical than substantive.

The Butina case captivated public attention in the U.S. because it unfolded around the same time as special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, even though the two probes were entirely separate.

It also led to scrutiny of the political dealings of the powerful NRA.

Alexander Roslyakov in Moscow contributed to this story.