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America’s latest witch-hunt

By Tony Kevin | OffGuardian | July 29, 2018

The current Maria Butina indictment in the US reminds one of Voltaire’s famous saying: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. I do not share Maria Butina’s fondness for guns or for the National Rifle Association’s aggressive lobbying for easy public access to guns. Nor would I put up my hand to attend National Prayer Breakfasts in the US. But she seems to be an innocent victim of current Washington elite Russophobia.

Maria Butina was keen to develop networks in these major pro- Republican US civil society organisations, especially in the years leading up to Trump’s election in late 2016. She has recently been arrested – on 15 July, one day before the Helsinki Summit – on two grounds : conspiracy (18 USC §371) , and failing to register as an agent of Russian influence (18 USC §951(a) ) . Here are the indictment documents.

With sympathetic US government representations to the Court, penalties for failing to register as a foreign agent §951 could conceivably be waived or minimised . But the conspiracy charge §371, if found proven by the Court , is very serious indeed. As Reuters reports the case:

Butina has been accused of working with a high-powered Russian official and two unidentified U.S. citizens, trying to infiltrate a pro-gun rights organization in the United States and influence the United States’ foreign policy toward Russia.’

Maria Butina faces up to ten years in US prison on these charges. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, protested vehemently to his counterpart Mike Pompeo, saying the charges are fabricated. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova was similarly forceful in condemnation, saying the long-planned indictment had been timed to try to derail the Helsinki Summit. Her detailed 18 July statement:

Arrest of Russian national Maria Butina in the United States

We are dismayed by the reported arrest of Russian citizen Maria Butina in the US on July 15. According to a statement on the website of the US Justice Department, she is charged with conspiracy to act as a foreign agent without registration.

These unsubstantiated claims against our fellow national seem odd, to say the least. As we know, Maria Butina has been in the United States for a long time as a student at a university in Washington and she has not been hiding from anybody.

It appears that instead of dealing with its core responsibilities in fighting crime, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is carrying out a blatant political order. As we understand it, the order came from those who continue to stir up Russophobic hysteria, for which purpose they regularly plant more fictional sensations about Russia’s alleged interference in the internal affairs of the United States.

On July 13, twelve Russians, who are currently outside the United States, were charged, as we have already mentioned. Now these ridiculous claims are made against Maria Butina – and she has even been arrested.

We could go on and on analysing this situation. We have the impression that the arrest, as a restrictive measure, was selected specifically to show the seriousness of the issue to the US public and to allies outside the country. The media immediately started referring to Butina as a spy and looked for connections with the security services, to build up tension without any substantial facts.

All this is happened right before the bilateral summit in Helsinki, with the obvious purpose of minimising the positive effect of the meeting and doing this as soon as possible. It appears that somebody took a watch, a calculator and timed when the decision on Maria Butina’s arrest should be taken in order to do as much as possible to sabotage the results of the summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump. This is how good the timing was.

It is possible to elaborate on the subject in the following way. If you have complaints against a person (and it is not a national security issue) you can always bring it to Russia’s attention. And more importantly, the matter could have been discussed, for example, in preparation for the summit. The US could have provided the details to its Russian counterparts and, also for example, discussed it on the margins of the summit or somehow touched base on the issue during the summit. Not a single word was said about it. The entire problem was concocted right after the summit. Given that Russia is a permanent topic of discussion in the US, that all the media are pumping up the hysteria, the bomb eventually detonated.

For our part, we are taking all possible measures to protect the rights and legal interests of the Russian national. The Russian Embassy in Washington contacted the US authorities and is pressing for an urgent consular meeting with Ms Butina, and this consular meeting is mandatory.

Immediately, allegations and rumours spread via social media. Users started to search for pictures of Maria Butina taking part in Russia-US meetings over the past two years.

There was a follow-up Russian Foreign Ministry media statement a week later, on 26 July, which offers disturbing detail of the harsh process of her arrest, and culminating in the claim that she is a political prisoner:

Arrest of Russian citizen Maria Butina in the US

We continue to closely monitor the fate of Russian citizen Maria Butina, arrested in Washington on July 15. Russian Embassy employees have visited her in prison, and have attended the court sessions where a measure of restraint and other procedural issues were determined, including yesterday. We have sent a resolute protest to the US State Department against the actions taken against her, including the severe psychological pressure she was subjected to.

Butina was subjected to an eight-hour search in the arrest process, as FBI agents armed with automatic firearms burst into her rented apartment, literally breaking furniture, shaking and even tearing up things, opening floors and walls. They found nothing incriminating, but despite the complete lack of evidence, Maria Butina was refused release.

The FBI’s thin case against Butina, as anyone can read on the internet, is actually based on decontextualised excerpts from her personal correspondence in social media. They are trying to incriminate her in a violation of the US foreign agents law, although she did not work for any foreign state, but studied at a Washington university and, taking a great interest in weapons, went to National Rifle Association of America events. She did this openly, not hiding her Russian citizenship, not hiding acquaintances or contacts, because there was nothing to hide.

However, certain political forces in the United States, pursuing self-serving interests, invented a story of Russian interference in the US elections, and this mudslinging campaign against Russia actually sent Butina to prison on a framed case – in fact, simply due to her nationality. What is this, if not a witch-hunt? There are fears that any of our compatriots in America might find themselves to be the next targets.

We demand that the US authorities immediately stop this arbitrariness and release Maria Butina. Her arrest is motivated solely by US domestic and foreign politics, and, therefore, she is a political prisoner.

Claiming her to be a likely flight risk into the Russian Embassy, the FBI quickly secured a court order to detain Butina pending her trial. Her trial is proposed by the prosecution to be held in secret because evidence to be presented is claimed to relate to ongoing national security investigations.

The Russian Embassy in Washington commented on Facebook:

We are surprised by the prosecution’s continued attempts to classify #FreeMariaButina case, thereby limiting public access to the details of the legal proceedings. Same tactic, as we see, is used by the 🇬🇧 special services concerning the Skripals case.

According to the Bloomberg report, the next hearing has been set for 10 September. So Maria Butina will have been jailed for eight weeks without trial, preparatory to a secret trial. One can only imagine her fear and distress.

I share the widespread Russian sense of outrage at this cruel and misconceived arrest and legal process. Maria Butina has not been accused of being a spy, of stealing American national security secrets, or of subverting American officials. At worst, she was a naive admirer of American ‘Wild West’ culture and its gun laws, which she wanted to emulate in Russia. She has publicly compared her birthplace, Siberia, to the American West, and Russian Cossacks to cowboys. She is, at worst, naive and imprudent, a fantasist about her imaginary idealised America. Not a spy or criminal by any reasonable or civilised measure.

Most of the preceding and following biographical detail comes from the Wikipedia article on Maria Butina and the court indictment papers, referenced above.

Maria Butina, now aged 29, was born in 1988 in Barnaul, in Altai Krai, Siberia. A tall athletic girl, her father used to take her hunting with him and taught her to shoot and handle guns from an early age. She did well at school and university, taking a degree in political science at Altai State University at age 19 in 2007. She moved to Moscow in 2011 , starting an advertising agency after building a successful furniture retail business in Altai. She joined the youth wing of the United Russia Party, the dominant political party in Russia.

Also in 2011, Butina founded a gun-rights organization, Right to Bear Arms, that lobbied to change Russia’s strict gun control laws. She began traveling back and forth to the U.S., initially with Aleksandr Torshin, who was then a Senator in the Federation Council of Russia, and a leading member of United Russia Party. He had hired her as his “special assistant” that year. In 2012, they lobbied the Federation Council to expand gun rights. In 2015, Butina said that Right to Bear Arms had 10,000 members and 76 offices in Russia.

In August 2016, two years ago, she moved to the United States on a student visa, and enrolled as a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C. Torshin had become a deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia in January 2015, and she worked as his special assistant until May 2017.

While a graduate student in US, her favoured hobbies were networking and cultivating her contacts in NRA and National Prayer Breakfast circles, and dipping into American Republican politics. In a June 2015 article published in The National Interest, a conservative American international affairs magazine, just before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president, she urged better relations between the United States and Russia. At a public meeting in July 2015, she had asked candidate Donald Trump about prospects for lifting US sanctions against Russia If he were elected. She was delighted at his reply that he saw no need for such sanctions.

She was effectively an amateur lobbyist for the cause of improved Russia-US relations and for Russia to adopt US gun laws. In one sense, therefore, she was paradoxically an agent of American influence in Russia. There is a photo of her leading a street demonstration in Moscow with banners advocating relaxation of Russia’s quite strict gun ownership licensing laws.

She loved guns. She thought wider gun ownership would deter violent crime and make Russian society safer. Naturally she became popular in some NRA circles. There are many photos of her toting guns in her cowboy gear.

She cultivated older wealthy men along the way. Nothing unusual there, in a young ambitious woman with no family connections. Torshin had allegedly helped to fund and arrange her move to Washington, and put her in touch with the Russian Embassy there.

Once settled there, she soon developed a personal relationship with an older American, a senior NRA member. The indictment papers report that she told some people this was not for her a deep or committed relationship.

The indictment papers say that she regularly reported on her activities, through entirely overt and non-clandestine open telephone or Internet channels, to a contact in the Russian Embassy in Washington, who was expelled in March 2018 as an alleged spy, in the post-Skripal round of diplomatic expulsions. This history of contact with the Embassy is now being held against her, to support the more serious conspiracy charge.

This vindictive politically motivated prosecution will damage US-Russian relations even further. Her distressed father has called the charges against her ‘psychopathy and a witch-hunt’.

The more this sort of thing happens to Russians in the US, the more that Russians will despise America as a strange and cruel country.

My country, Australia, has just passed similar Agent of Foreign Influence laws. One can readily imagine such a prosecution of an ambitious but naive Russian immigrant or temporary student resident here, coming under surveillance and being eventually arrested for some relatively innocuous political activity like joining in environmental activism involving some minor temporary activities defined in the new laws as sabotage, with some sexual misconduct allegations being thrown in to spice the stew. Sentencing could be severe, as in US. In the current Russophobic official political climate in Australia, no mercy could be expected from government or opposition parties.

This story leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. To my mind, Maria Butina is an innocent casualty of American liberal-Democratic Party and anti-Trump Russophobia, gone feral.

She ticks so many of her accusers’ ‘hate’ boxes : Trump admirer, Putin admirer, admirer of the NRA and Prayer Breakfast cultures, sexually liberated, open about her wish to bring the two countries she loved most – Russia and America – closer together. A lot of ideological scores are being settled here, and this poor young woman is the first victim. There could be more such victims, in the US and possibly here in US camp follower Australia.

Trump has very little scope to help her, even if he wanted to. She is now caught up in the brutal mechanics of the US justice system, and the liberal democratic mainstream media are already busily trying to convict her in the court of US public opinion., crafting a false ‘Red Sparrow’ or Anna Chapman spy image of her. It is a very sad story and I fear it will not end well for Maria.

Tony Kevin, a former Australian senior diplomat, is an independent non-fiction author. His most recent book is ‘Return to Moscow’, a literary travel memoir published by UWA Publishing in 2017.

July 29, 2018 - Posted by | Deception, Russophobia | , ,

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