Grand Jury Charges University Student With Aiding Russian Government

| JUL 18, 2018 | 9:47 PM

Handout/REUTERS

A U.S. grand jury indicted a Russian student at American University on Tuesday on charges of acting as an agent and infiltrating U.S. political groups.

Maria Butina, 29, faces conspiracy charges, which carry a five-year maximum prison term. She also faces charges of aiding the Russian government, carrying a 10-year maximum prison sentence. She was not charged with espionage or working for Russia's intelligence service.

Butina founded the pro-gun Russian advocacy group, Right to Bear Arms. Her Facebook page features numerous pictures of her with high-profile political figures, such as NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre.

Officials suspect Alexander Torshin, deputy head of Russia's Central Bank, paid Butina to infiltrate political groups and develop relationships with U.S. citizens. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Torshin in April.

On her student visa application, Butina said she previously worked as a special assistant to Torshin.

Butina's lawyer, Robert Driscoll, defended her actions as merely diplomatic in a statement after her arrest on Sunday.

“There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law [of] the United States—only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations.”

Butina's social media also featured photos of her with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Senator Rick Santorum.

Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to deny her bail, citing concerns that she is a “flight risk.”

“The defendant's legal status in the United States is predicated on deception,” the prosecutors wrote in a court filing. “She not only has deep ties to her country (with which the United States has no extradition treaty) but actually works on behalf of the Russian government.”

The Justice Department said Butina will appear before a federal court in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.