Judge orders alleged Russian agent to remain in custody

Judge orders alleged Russian agent to remain in custody
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A federal district court judge on Wednesday ordered alleged Russian foreign agent Maria Butina to remain in custody while she awaits trial.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson, an Obama appointee on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said the government had proved there are no conditions of release or combination of conditions that would ensure Butina would return to court for her trial.

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Butina, 29, was arrested on Sunday and indicted Tuesday on charges of conspiracy and acting as an agent of the Russian Federation without notifying the attorney general. The charges carry a combined sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

She is accused of infiltrating active political organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and exploiting personal connections with Americans to advance Russian interests.

Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll entered a not guilty plea on behalf of Butina, who appeared in court Wednesday in an orange prison jumpsuit after Robinson denied her request to appear in civilian clothes moments before the detention and preliminary hearing started.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson argued that Butina is a flight risk because the Russian embassy or a Russian diplomat in the U.S. could help her flee the country.

He called it “absurd” that’s she’s being portrayed merely as a graduate student at American University.

Kenerson said the FBI uncovered detailed texts, Twitter messages and emails between Butina and a Russian official that discuss her being “underground” and acting “incognito” at political events.

At one point during Wednesday’s hearing, which lasted about two hours, Kenerson entered into evidence a photo of Butina in front of the U.S. Capitol on Inauguration Day with a translated message in which the Russian official called her “a daredevil girl.”

Driscoll dismissed the image as a normal photo any foreign student would take in the nation's capital.

He argued that Butina could have fled the country at anytime over the last few years. He also noted that she provided eight hours of testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door session and responded to questions from the Federal Election Commission about campaign contributions.

Driscoll said the FBI has had Butina under surveillance for the last year and conducted a search of her apartment in April.

Butina is not a “proxy” for any of the serious issues the U.S. has with Russia right now and has nothing to do with 12 Russian intelligence officers who were indicted last week for allegedly hacking into the Democratic National Committee, Driscoll said.

Federal prosecutors had argued in court that Butina poses a serious flight risk based on the nature of the charges, her history of deceptive conduct, the potential sentence she faces, the strong evidence of guilt, her extensive foreign connections and her lack of any meaningful ties to the United States.

In a motion filed Wednesday morning, federal prosecutors allege that Butina was in contact with officials believed to be Russian intelligence operatives and maintained contact information for employees of the Russian FSB, the main successor agency to the USSR’s Committee of State Security, the KGB.

In court, Kenerson also showed a picture of Butina at a restaurant with someone the FBI believes is a Russian intelligence operator and said he saw a photo of Butina with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which Driscoll dismissed as a photo taken at a Russian movie screening.

To further show that Butina is a flight risk, the government’s filing Wednesday argued that her last connection to the District of Columbia — her apartment lease — ends July 31, and there were boxes packed in it consistent with a forthcoming move at the time of her arrest on July 15.

In court, Driscoll said he informed the government that Butina was planning to move to South Dakota to be with her boyfriend, known in court documents as U.S. Person 1. He suggested that the judge at the very least release Butina with conditions like checking in periodically with the court, maintaining her apartment in D.C., canceling her move and staying away from the airport.

Updated at 5:40 p.m.