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Magistrate Judge Orders Accused Russian Agent Held Pending Trial

[caption id="attachment_19921" align="aligncenter" width="620"]  Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow. Butina, a 29-year-old gun-rights activist, served as a covert Russian agent while living in Washington, gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations and working to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin, federal prosecutors charged July 16. (AP Photo)[/caption] A federal magistrate judge in Washington ordered a Russian woman detained Wednesday, pending her trial on charges she served as a covert agent for Moscow while living in the United States. In front of a packed courtroom, U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson of the District of Columbia sided with prosecutors’ view that the woman, Maria Butina, posed a flight risk, in part because of connections to Russian intelligence that the Justice Department laid out in a filing submitted just hours before the hearing. The decision came after a nearly two-hour hearing Wednesday afternoon, where Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll pleaded not guilty for his client. Butina was escorted into and out of the courtroom, wearing an orange jumpsuit. Butina, 29, was indicted by a grand jury Tuesday on charges she served in the United States as an agent of the Russian government without notifying the Justice Department. In the court filing Wednesday, prosecutors said Butina maintained constant contact with Russian intelligence officials and “loyally” carried out a years-long conspiracy to advance the Kremlin’s interests. They described her plan as “calculated, patient” and directed by a Russian official believed to be Alexander Torshin, who was sanctioned by the Treasury Department earlier this year. Butina’s defense lawyer, Driscoll of McGlinchey Stafford in Washington, has dismissed the Justice Department’s charges as “overblown.” “Maria Butina is not an agent of the Russian Federation,” Driscoll said in a prepared statement Monday. During Wednesday’s hearing, prosecutor Erik Kenerson, of the U.S. attorney’s office in the District of Columbia, mounted a forceful argument that the court could not “fashion” any combination of conditions that would assure Butina’s appearance in court. Kenerson said Butina, who had “every single incentive” to flee the U.S, could go to a Russian embassy in the country, or escape through a registered diplomatic car -- at which point neither the courts nor law enforcement would be able to stop her from fleeing. Prosecutors cited her potential sentence, "strong evidence of guilt" and extensive foreign connections as potential reasons to flee. Driscoll countered Kenerson’s charge by arguing that would have been the case for any national of a country without an extradition treaty. He noted Butina had previous chances to flee the country, but instead opted to cooperate with federal investigators probing related matters. Driscoll also painted Butina, until recently a student at American University, as someone who was swept up in the web of Russia-related probes. Butina “is not a proxy for any of the serious or substantial issues our country has with Russia,” he said. The Justice Department has also noted that Butina’s apartment lease in Washington ends on July 31. When she was arrested at that apartment on Sunday, prosecutors said, there were packed boxes “consistent with a move.” Also, In the days leading up to her arrest, Butina wired money to a Russian bank account and applied for a visa that would allow her to travel to and from the United States—steps that suggested she was planning to leave the Washington area and possibly the United States, the Justice Department said. “Because Butina has been exposed as an illegal agent of Russia, there is the grave risk that she will appeal to those within that government with whom she conspired to aid her escape from the United States,” the Justice Department argued in court papers Wednesday. The Justice Department’s brief Wednesday was remarkable in its detail, quoting messages Butina exchanged with the official believed to be Torshin, who has been described as her primary point of contact in her home country. The messages showed that Butina is considered to be “on par” with other covert Russian agents, prosecutors said. “Her risk of flight under these circumstances increases immeasurably,” prosecutors added.