President Vladimir Putin has criticized a decision by a U.S. court to sentence Russian citizen Maria Butina to 18 months in prison after she pleaded guilty of acting as a Russian agent without registering.
Putin told journalists on the sidelines of a summit in Beijing on April 27 that the U.S. court decision was "arbitrary" and that Russian authorities "don't understand why she was sentenced."
"There is nothing we could accuse her of, but to make this case not look completely ridiculous, she was sentenced to 18 months in prison," Putin said.
Putin's remarks came a day after the U.S. court issued its sentence against Butina, who admitted she had tried to infiltrate conservative U.S. political circles and promote the interests of the Russian state before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Earlier on April 27, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in Moscow that Butina's jail sentence was "unacceptable.”
“We believe that the Russian national was not, and could not, be involved in what she is accused of,” Peskov said.
Butina has been jailed since her arrest in July 2018 and will receive credit for the nine months she already has served.
The U.S. court ruled that after completing her prison sentence in January 2020, she will be immediately deported back to Russia.
Butina pleaded guilty to charges of not registering as an agent of the Russian government and carrying out activities on behalf of the Russian state while she was a university student in the United States.
Defense lawyers had argued that Butina was merely eager to build connections with U.S. political activists, particularly conservatives, and that her failure to register with the Justice Department was an oversight on her part.
But U.S. Judge Tanya Chutkan rejected those arguments on April 26.
“This was not a simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student,” Chutkan said.
The case against Butina was separate from the now-concluded investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
But it touched on many of the same issues related to how and why Russia sought to interfere in U.S. politics ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Prosecutors say that before and during her studies at American University in Washington, she sought to build relationships with conservative groups like the National Rifle Association on behalf of at least one powerful Kremlin-connected lawmaker.
Shortly after her sentencing, the Russian Embassy in Washington called Butina a "political prisoner" and demanded her immediate release.
The Foreign Ministry said she had pleaded guilty to avoid a longer prison term. It called the sentence "a shameful stain on the American judicial system" and claimed it was "the result of a blatant political order."
That kind of criticism is frequently made against Putin’s government by Kremlin opponents, human rights groups, and Western countries who say Russian courts are routinely used as political instruments.
Acquittals are very rare, and critics say suspects and convicts are often kept behind bars groundlessly.