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Accused Russian Agent Seeks To Raise Funds Online For Legal Defense

Maria Butina
Maria Butina

A Russian woman who has been charged in Washington with acting as an unregistered agent for the Russian government has launched an online fundraising campaign to pay for her legal defense.

Maria Butina, 29, opened a website to raise money for her case after being arrested last month, her lawyer and media reported on August 17.

Before her arrest, the gun rights advocate had built up a network of prominent Republican contacts in Washington, including at the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), while working toward a master's degree in political science at American University.

"I'm Maria and I need your help," the website of Butina's new fundraising foundation says, with pictures of the smiling redhead at different sites around the United States.

A native of Siberia, the website says "she championed peace and positive relations between her homeland and the United States" while she studied and hosted "insider" dinners on Russian themes.

"But after graduating with honors, she was arrested by the U.S. government for crimes she did not commit," it says. The website did not indicate how much money she has raised so far.

While Butina is charged with spying on the United States, her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, has insisted that "this is not a spy case." He told TASS, the Russian news agency, that she expects to attract donations from Russia, the United States, and elsewhere around the world.

"We will be very grateful for donations from friends and supporters. Information about sponsors will be strictly confidential," the website says in both English and Russian.

In court filings, the Justice Department called Butina a "covert Russian agent" who maintained contacts with Russian spies and pursued a mission "to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation."

She built contacts through the NRA in part by setting up her own gun rights group in Russia, where private firearms are strictly controlled.

Her enthusiasm for gun rights enabled her to meet and mingle with senior U.S. Republican lawmakers and operatives who have championed gun rights in the United States, many of whom she met through her boyfriend, a Republican operative, court documents say.

The documents say that while living with the unnamed operative, she offered sex to someone else to get a job at a U.S. lobbying group.

On July 18, Butina pleaded not guilty to two criminal charges of conspiring to act as a foreign agent without registering and acting as a foreign agent. The first charge brings a maximum five years in prison, while the second carries a maximum 10 years.

Her lawyer told the Russian newspaper Izvestia on August 16 that after appearing as a witness on Capitol Hill, Butina provided the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee documents related to her relationship with Russian Central Bank Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Torshin, with whom Butina once worked, and the NRA.

Torshin is believed to be the person described in court papers as Butina's contact, handler, and financier in Russia.

Butina's next court appearance will be on September 10, Driscoll said.

Meanwhile, Interfax reported on August 17 that the Russian Embassy in Washington plans to lodge a complaint with the U.S. State Department claiming that Butina has been subject to "psychological pressure" and "humiliating treatment" at the Washington jail where she is being held.

The embassy said Butina has not been allowed outdoor walks and guards have been conducting inspections of her jail cell every 15 minutes at nighttime -- a procedure used for inmates who are considered likely to commit suicide -- even though Butina is not considered a suicide risk.

Butina also has been subject to strip searches that require her to fully undress after every meeting with her lawyers, embassy representatives, or other acquaintances, Interfax quoted the embassy as saying.

The embassy also claimed Butina has not received medical attention she needs and has been barred from receiving letters in Russian because U.S. authorities said they might contain "coded messages."

With reporting by AFP, Interfax, Izvestia, and TASS
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