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Butina set to appear in US court after foreign agent guilty plea

Maria Butina's mugshot after being booked into the Alexandria detention center (Alexandria, Virginia Detention Center/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Maria Butina was set to make her first appearance in U.S. federal court since pleading guilty last year to charges of being an unregistered foreign agent.

The February 26 hearing in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., comes ahead of a final decision on whether the Russian native will serve time in a U.S. prison or be deported to Russia.

Defense lawyer Robert Driscoll told the Russian state news agency TASS that Butina’s Russian passport had been handed over to U.S. immigration authorities, a possible signal she may end up being forced to leave the United States rather than serving more time in custody.

Driscoll said he hopes a final sentence will be announced no later than April.

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“Our hope would be that she’ll receive a sentence that will be equivalent to the time already served and that she will be released and deported soon after that,” he was quoted as saying.

In December, Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government. In court documents, prosecutors had charged that Butina had sought to infiltrate conservative U.S. political organizations, including the influential National Rifle Association.

As part of their evidence, prosecutors pointed to one of her key backers, Aleksandr Torshin, a former lawmaker and top official at Russia’s Central Bank, who was hit with financial sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department in April — three months before Butina’s arrest.

Earlier this month, an American conservative political activist who was identified as Butina’s boyfriend was indicted by a federal grand jury in the state of South Dakota on financial fraud charges.

The Kremlin has called the charges against Butina “groundless,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that Butina pleaded guilty “under pressure.”

Meetings With Top Officials

The upcoming sentencing comes as U.S. senators have begun inquiring into two meetings that Butina and Torshin held in 2015 with two top U.S. financial officials: Stanley Fischer, then Federal Reserve vice chairman, and Nathan Sheets, then Treasury undersecretary for international affairs.

On February 15, the Senate Finance Committee sent a letter to a Washington think tank that organized the meeting, the Center for the National Interest.

The center, which also has a magazine that had published articles authored by Butina, is a foreign policy think tank that is supportive of efforts to improve U.S.-Russia relations. Its chief executive is a Russian-born man, Dimitri Simes.

“It is concerning that Ms. Butina and Mr. Torshin were able to gain access to high-level administration officials responsible for U.S. economic and monetary policy to reportedly discuss U.S. Russian economic relations,” the lawmakers wrote.

Letters were also sent to the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve.

Butina’s father, who lives in the Siberian city of Barnual, told TASS that his daughter’s health was normal.

“Her health is normal, and she feels confident [before the court session] and hopes that it all will end soon,” he was quoted as saying.