Russian spy Maria Butina pleads guilty in US court

Butina becomes the first Russian to be convicted of working to shape US policy during the 2016 election campaign.

    A woman accused of acting as a Russian agent to infiltrate a powerful gun lobby group and influence the United States's policy towards Moscow has pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy.

    Maria Butina, a former graduate student at the American University in Washington, DC who had publicly advocated for gun rights, changed her plea from not guilty to guilty during a hearing on Thursday.

    The 30-year-old was charged in July with acting as an agent of the Russian government and conspiracy to take actions on behalf of Moscow.

    Prosecutors accused Butina of working with a Russian official and two US citizens in trying to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA), a group closely aligned with Republican politicians including US President Donald Trump, and sway Washington's policy towards Moscow.

    Butina's lawyers previously identified the Russian official as Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia's central bank who was targeted with US Treasury Department sanctions in April.

    One of the two Americans cited in the prosecution's criminal complaint was Paul Erickson, a conservative US political activist who was dating Butina.

    'Fabricated'

    After she was charged, Russia labelled the case against Butina as "fabricated" and called for her release.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about Butina on Tuesday in Moscow, a day after US court filings indicated she would plead guilty in Washington.

    "She risks 15 years in jail. For what?" Putin asked. "...I asked all the heads of our intelligence services what is going on. Nobody knows anything about her."

    The prosecutors in the Butina case are not from the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia's role in the 2016 US election and whether Trump's campaign conspired with Moscow to help him win.

    The complaint against Butina did not explicitly mention Trump's campaign.

    Nevertheless, with a guilty plea, Butina became the first Russian citizen to be convicted of working to shape US policy in the time period spanning the 2016 election campaign.

    Mueller has brought criminal charges against a series of Russian individuals and entities but those cases are still pending.

    Trump has denied any collusion with Moscow. Russia, in turn, has also denied interfering in the US politics.

    SOURCE: News agencies