Arrested in July on allegations that she was acting as an agent of the Russian Federation without registering, and engaged in a “conspiracy to commit an offensive against the United States,” political activist Maria Butina remains in custody pending a trial. Exactly when that will happen is unclear.
What is clear is that some of the biggest charges against her were simply false. Prosecutors filed a document Friday admitting that they were “mistaken” about the allegations that she had offered sex in return for access to Republican circles.
That’s a big thing to be mistaken about. Prosecutors say that they saw certain joking text messages between Butina and a friend who was helping her renew her car insurance, and took everything said as dead serious plotting.
Butina’s lawyer says that’s all well and good, but that the “damage is already done,” since allegations of her trading sex for access have been repeated for months in the media, and the assumption of her guilt is already enmeshed in many peoples’ minds.
In many ways, her lawyers argue that this is typical of the federal case against Butina, which has been highly sensationalized, and light on real specifics. This has portrayed Butina, a political activist, as tantamount to a super spy using sex as a weapon.
With that allegation having crumbled, Butina’s charges center on the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), and whether she was obliged to register as an agent of a foreign government based on her political activism. Violations of FARA in this regard are routine, and criminal prosecutions are exceedingly rare. Successful prosecutions under FARA are all but unheard of. FARA has long been criticized for its selective enforcement, and the US has historically chosen to ignore, for instance, lobbyists working for the Israeli government while aggressively going after people perceived as working for countries like Cuba, with whom the US is less friendly.
Even with prosecutors dialing back what they think she might’ve done, the judge is still refusing to release her pending the trial, saying she cannot envision any possible situation where Butina could be released under any combination of house arrest and GPS monitoring without being a flight risk.
The judge conceded that she didn’t see how prosecutors could’ve made the mistakes about the joking text messages either, saying she said that the joke was “apparent on their face.” Yet the hype resulting from those bogus charges are clearly informing the judge’s refusal to consider bail, imagining Butina to have high-level Russian government connections that can simply spirit her out of the country at a moment’s notice. This is certainly not the sort of treatment a typical FARA registration matter would justify.
With the case dragging on, many are looking for ways to help Butina defend herself from the litany of charges thrown at her. Those wishing to do so can find information on donating to her defense at the Maria Butina Legal Expense Fund.