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Maria Butina, Russian gun rights activist linked to NRA, charged with conspiracy

first_imgiStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — FBI counter-intelligence agents have arrested a 29-year-old Russian woman on charges she acted as a Kremlin agent while working over the past three years to build relationships in the upper ranks of the National Rifle Association.Maria Butina, the cofounder of the mysterious Russian gun-rights group called “Right to Bear Arms” who recently graduated with a master’s degree from American University, “took steps to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish private, or as she called them, ‘back channel’ lines of communication,” according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Washington on Saturday.She is being held pending a hearing set for later this week, according to a Department of Justice press release.Butina denied the charges through an attorney, who called the complaint against her “overblown” and said she “intends to defend her rights vigorously and looks forward to clearing her name.”According to Butina’s attorney, the FBI executed a search warrant at her Washington, D.C., apartment in April, and the affidavit attached to the complaint states that agents searched her electronic devices, including her laptop and iPhone.“While styled as some sort of conspiracy, in actuality it describes a conspiracy to have a ‘friendship dinner’ … with a group of Americans and Russians to discuss foreign relations between the two countries – hardly a shocking development for a Russian International Relations student living in Washington,” Driscoll said. “There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law in the United States – only to promote a better relationship between the two nations.”In the affidavit, however, the FBI alleges that Butina came to the U.S. under the direction of an unnamed Russian official, who based on the description, appears to be her longtime mentor, Alexander Torshin. A former member of the Russian parliament, Torshin is one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies and is now deputy governor of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation.Torshin is a lifetime member of the NRA and a frequent attendee of both NRA events and the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. That stopped this past April, when Torshin was included in a round of U.S. sanctions against Russian oligarchs.The affidavit quotes from several private message exchanges between Butina and the Russian Official, including one in which they discuss whether she should attempt to become an official election observer.“The Russian Official expressed the opinion that ‘the risk of provocation is too high… and Butina agreed by responding, ‘Only incognito! Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.’”But the case brought against her was not brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, and it is not known whether it has any connection to the broader investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential campaign.Butina actually crossed paths with both President Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr., during the 2016 campaign, including a moment at the FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas in July 2015 when she asked the Republican candidate directly about his views on U.S. sanctions against Russia.In recent months, Butina’s close ties to senior officials with the NRA have prompted criticism of the gun rights organization. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, led an effort to determine whether Russian nationals donated money to any offshoots of the NRA as part of any effort to influence American politics.The National Rifle Association has denied receiving money “from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States elections.” An NRA spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests from ABC News for comment regarding the charges against Butina.Critics of the controversial gun-rights group pounced on the fresh allegations.“The NRA has avoided explaining its ties to Putin for more than a year now,” John Feinblatt, President of Everytown for Gun Safety, told ABC News Monday. “That should end now that DOJ has charged a Russian national with deep ties to NRA leadership” with trying to infiltrate organizations to advance the interests of Russia.Both Torshin and Butina were prolific on social media, posting photos of her modeling with rifles, mingling with GOP presidential hopefuls at the 2014 NRA convention, and posing outside the group’s Virginia headquarters.Through the lens of their social media accounts, Torshin and Butina appear to be close and have posted numerous photos together, from hunting trips in Russia to attending the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, seated just a few feet from the keynote speaker President Trump.But on May 12, Butina was just the average graduate student. Donning a royal blue cap and gown, she accepted her diploma from American University, earning a degree in International Relations.According to her student profile, Butina focused on “Global Security” for the past two years. A webpage on American University’s website offered several details about the program, including developing a student’s ability to “analyze how different understandings of peace and security inform policy choices and ways of thinking about patterns of conflict.”Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.last_img read more