Maria Butina: alleged spy or political prisoner?
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed the latter on Thursday, calling the 29-year old a “political prisoner” who “was arrested exclusively because of her Russian passport.”
Amid an ongoing tussle over access to evidence in the case, Zakharova echoed the new line used by Butina’s defense attorneys — that prosecutors are improperly withholding evidence in the case. Butina faces charges of failing to register as a foreign agent and conspiracy against the United States.
“It is baffling that the court considering Maria Butina’s case has not yet handed over the case material to her, although the hearing is scheduled for November 13,” Zakharova said at an Oct. 25 press conference in Moscow. “Unfortunately, this gives us yet another reason to doubt the impartiality of American justice system of course in this specific, concrete case as well.”
Lawyers for Butina had argued in an Oct. 22 letter that the government was withholding potentially exonerating evidence, saying that the government’s behavior is “tantamount to prosecutorial misconduct.”
“The fact that Maria Butina is Russian does not reduce the government’s Brady obligations,” attorneys wrote.
Prosecutors have hit back against allegations that they withheld evidence in the case, saying in an Oct. 23 court filing that Butina’s team had “advanced certain hypothetical scenarios” in which Butina had been entrapped by unnamed federal agents.
As the U.S. government pushed back, the Russians quickly jumped on the newest claims from Butina’s lawyer, holding a press conference to defend Butina and attempt to smear the American judicial system.
Zakharova, whose Twitter account has a picture of Butina with a “FreeMariaButina” hashtag attached, at one point appeared to choke up with tears during the press conference, discussing the tribulations of Butina’s treatment in pretrial detention in Alexandria, Virginia.
“She has recently been allowed to work in the local library,” Zakharova said, while pausing to collect herself. “Constant access to books and the press will give our countrywoman the chance for some extra moral stimulus in these conditions, where her name has really been besmirched and where such an atmosphere of hate has been formed in which she has become almost a symbol of the ongoing Russophobia in U.S. political circles.”
That allegation from Butina’s lawyer fits a strategy used by others ensnared in various criminal investigations relating to covert Russian influence in the United States.
George Papadopoulos, the influential Trump “coffee boy” who told Australia’s top diplomat to the UK over drinks that Russia had gained access to the Clinton campaign’s internal emails, has to be the victim of a multinational intelligence operation in the months since his sentencing for perjury.
Russian government-aligned media have portrayed Butina as a victim of political persecution, attempting to turn her into a cause celebre for an alleged Russophobic “atmosphere of hate” in the United States.
TV channel Russia 24, which belongs to the Russian government, put out a report in August about cold conditions in Butina’s jail cell.
“The well-being of Russian citizen Maria Butina has worsened, as diplomats in our embassy in the USA have informed us. As a result of her cold jail cell, her chronic arthritis has been exacerbated,” the report went.
Other segments focused on Butina receiving permission to call her parents, and on her receiving various visits from Russian diplomats.