By ERIC TUCKER and BOBBY CALVAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A Russian gun rights activist who admitted being a secret agent for the Kremlin and trying to infiltrate conservative U.S. political groups while Donald Trump rose to power was released from federal prison on Friday, officials said.
Maria Butina left a low-security facility in Tallahassee, Florida and was placed in the custody of federal immigration authorities. She is expected to be immediately deported to Russia now that she has finished her 18-month sentence.
Butina pleaded guilty last December to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent. She admitted that she worked with a former Russian lawmaker to leverage contacts in the National Rifle Association to pursue back channels to American conservatives during the 2016 presidential campaign when Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
She violated U.S. law because she did not report those efforts to the Justice Department, which requires the registration of lobbyists and others in the U.S. who do the bidding of foreign governments.
A report last month from Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, alleged that the NRA acted as a “foreign asset” for Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election and that NRA insiders provided access to the American political system to advance personal business interests. The report said the NRA had engaged in a yearslong effort to facilitate the U.S.-based activities” of Butina and Alexander Torshin, the former lawmaker. The NRA called the report “politically motivated and contrived.”
Butina has contended that she was not a spy and that her actions took place out in the open. Her lawyers have said that she was simply a student interested in American politics and better U.S.-Russian relations.
“I love both countries, and I was building peace,” Butina said in an interview with NPR in May. In the same interview, she said she knew that Torshin was providing the information she gathered to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She said that she was honored to help and believed that her notes and analysis would be valuable to Russian officials.
In April, she told reporters in Moscow in a conference call that “I didn’t expect such a severe punishment.” Russia’s embassy has also said that its diplomats visited her.
The case was separate from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. Butina has said she knew nothing about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the presidential election.
Butina also said in the NPR interview that she has no concerns about returning to Russia because people who know her “know as a matter of fact that I am not a spy nor do I have any secret information.”
“I don’t think I have any problems or I could have any concerns about my safety,” she said. “I don’t see that happening.”