By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Accused Russian agent Maria Butina’s lawyers were set to ask a U.S. judge on Monday to release her pending trial after prosecutors backed off their allegation that she had offered sex in exchange for a job at a special interest organization.
In a brief filed late on Sunday, Butina’s lawyers criticized the prosecution’s case for why she should remain jailed and cited a series of errors they said prosecutors have made.
Butina, 29, is set to appear before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan on Monday afternoon for a status hearing. The former American University graduate student was charged in July with acting as an agent of the Russian government and conspiracy to take actions on behalf of Russia. She has pleaded not guilty. She could face years in prison if convicted.
Her lawyers said prosecutors also wrongly claimed she had applied for a tourist visa after completing her graduate studies. They said she actually had applied for work authorization permission, which they called “a fact that carries a very different implication about her future plans in the United States and undermines the government’s fear of her bolting to Russia.”
Shortly before midnight on Friday, prosecutors filed a brief with the court opposing a request by Butina’s lawyers to let her out of jail, arguing she remains a serious flight risk.
In the filing, they acknowledged they may have misinterpreted text messages between Butina and a person identified by the initials D.K. that they previously had cited as evidence that she had offered sex in exchange for a position in an unidentified special interest organization. They also admitted their mistake about the tourist visa.
However, prosecutors wrote, “If the defendant is released, and she goes to the Russian embassy or consulate, she will be beyond the reach of this Court, and it will have no redress.”
Butina is accused of working with a Russian official and two unidentified U.S. citizens, trying to infiltrate a gun-rights organization in the United States and influence American foreign policy toward Russia.
The gun-rights group was not identified. However, her social media accounts show she attended many National Rifle Association events and met with top officials of the influential lobby group that has close ties to Republican politicians including President Donald Trump. The NRA did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Questions relating to Russia have cast a cloud over Trump‘s presidency.
Butina’s lawyers identified the Russian official as Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia‘s central bank who was hit with U.S. Treasury Department sanctions in April. One of the two U.S. people mentioned in the criminal complaint matches the description of Butina’s boyfriend Paul Erickson, a conservative U.S. political activist.
A magistrate judge in July ordered Butina jailed without bail pending trial after prosecutors presented evidence suggesting she had connections to Russian intelligence operatives and was being funded by Russian oligarchs.
Russia has labeled the case against Butina “fabricated” and called for her release.
The Russian central bank has declined comment on the case.
Erickson could not be immediately reached and has previously not returned calls seeking comment on the case.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham)