WASHINGTON (CN) – Alleged Russian Agent Mariia Butina will remain in custody until her trial on charges of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
“The court will order Ms. Butina held without bond pending trial,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson said at the conclusion of a two-hour detention hearing.
Butina was arrested on Sunday on charges of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and acting as an agent of a foreign government. She pleaded not guilty to both charges in court Wednesday.
In court documents, prosecutors alleged Butina had contact information in her possession for people the US says were employees of Russia’s Federal Security Services.
The FBI also says it observed her dining privately with a Russian diplomat suspected of being an intelligence operative.
During the hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington Wednesday afternoon, defense attorney Robert Driscoll downplayed the contact.
“A Russian national having dinner with another Russian national is nothing unique at all,” Driscoll said.
But during the hearing, prosecutors argued Butina poses a flight risk and said she could seek shelter at the Russian embassy or in a diplomatic vehicle.
Prosecutors summoned the testimony of Joseph Towell, a special agent with the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, to explain how Butina might be able to evade authorities if released on bond.
When the U.S. grants diplomatic immunity to a foreign diplomat, that person is immune from arrest and detention. That immunity extends to their vehicles and encompasses anyone in the car who does not have immunity, Towell said.
If driven to a land border crossing in a car with diplomatic immunity, U.S. officials can do nothing to stop the vehicle – it would be up to foreign officials on the other side to determine whether to let the vehicle pass.
In court, attorney Driscoll said the government has no evidence that Butina has interacted with Russian diplomats or sought out their protection, but prosecutor Erik Kenerson said the government had obtained photographs of Butina with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Driscoll countered that the photo was taken at a movie screening at a Russian cultural event, and that Kislyak was the former ambassador then.
Butina is accused of working to infiltrate American political organizations, including the National Rifle Association, although the NRA is not directly named in the complaint.
According to the motion, foreign agents often assume cover as students while they carry out operations on behalf of a foreign power. The government’s filing says that while she studied, she was romantically involved with a 56-year-old Republican operative from South Dakota, which the government says she viewed as part of her official duties.
Once, Butina offered someone else “sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” the motion says. Butina had complained about living with the man, identified only as U.S. Person 1 in court filings, “and expressed disdain” at continuing to live with him.
During Wednesday’s court hearing, attorney Driscoll suggested the relationship was serious, and called the man Butina’s “boyfriend.” Prosecutors said Butina might have been preparing to flee the country, as she had cancelled her lease and boxed up her belongings.
But Driscoll said Butina was simply preparing to move to South Dakota with her boyfriend – a fact he said the government was aware of. Driscoll noted that many graduate students like Butina, who received a degree in international relations from American University, often move at the completion of their studies.
The government says Butina met with U.S. politicians and candidates, attended events sponsored by special interest groups — including two National Prayer Breakfast events — and organized Russian-American “friendship and dialogue” dinners in Washington with the goal of “reporting back to Moscow” what she had learned.
But Driscoll has argued that Butina is just a foreign student who came to the United States to attend university. He suggested the government has cherry picked certain private messages to build its case, but noted that among the tens of thousands of messages the government recovered, many are about mundane things like what kind of toothpaste to buy in the United States.
Prosecutor Kenerson, however, said Butina’s communications suggest otherwise.
Kenerson pointed to a Twitter message Butina sent to someone identified in the indictment only as a “Russian Official” on Oct. 5, 2016 to illustrate his point.
“By your recommendation, I am setting up the groundwork here but I am really in need of mentoring. Or the energy might to towards the wrong direction,” Butina had written. “Yesterday’s dinner showed that American society is broken in relation to Russia. This is now the dividing line of opinions, the crucial one in the election race.”
“This is not the language of someone here just to study,” Kenerson said.
If she is convicted, she faces maximum charges of 5 and 10 years on the respective charges.
Butina appeared in court Wednesday wearing an orange jumpsuit with a white T-shirt underneath. Her long, red hair hung freely while she sat attentive but largely expressionless at the table with her attorneys.
At the conclusion of the hearing, U.S. Marshals escorted Butina through a door at the back of the courtroom.
In a July 18 motion supporting Butina’s pretrial detention, the government said Butina likely remained in contact with employees of the Russian FSB, or Russia’s intelligence agency. Among the documents federal agents recovered from Butina was a hand-written note called “Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization,” which asked “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?”
In other messages, the unnamed Russian official says Butina “upstaged Anna Chapman,” a member of a covert Russian intelligence ring arrested in the United States in 2010.
“She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones.”
The motion also claims Butina has connections to a Russian oligarch “with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration,” who the government says has been referred to as Butina’s “funder.”