A woman convicted of conspiracy to act as a Russian agent was deported to her native country on Oct. 25 after being released from prison.
Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison on April 26. She had been in custody since her arrest in July 2018.
Butina “completed her sentence and entered ICE custody Oct. 25, 2019, and ICE removed her to Russia that same day,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said in a statement.
Butina was placed on a direct flight from Miami International Airport to Moscow at approximately 6 p.m.
In brief comments to journalists at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after arriving on an Aeroflot flight from Miami, Butina thanked her supporters. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers and rested her head on the shoulder of her father, Valery, who had come from their Siberian hometown of Barnaul to meet her.
“I am very, very, very happy to be back home. I am very grateful to everyone who supported me—all the Russian citizens who helped and wrote me letters and donated money for my defense,” she said.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, who also met Butina at the airport, said the 30-year-old is a victim of entrenched anti-Russian attitudes.
“This is what, unfortunately, the previous U.S. administration started trying to destroy the bilateral relationship,” Maria Zakharova said. Since the election of President Donald Trump, Russian officials have consistently blamed troubled relations on so-called “Russophobia” carried over from the administration of President Barack Obama.
“She really did no harm to anybody. She’s just a girl, she’s just a young woman. She tried to invest her youth, if you wish, her gift, her talent, into people-to-people contacts,” Zakharova said.
Butina’s case was highly criticized in Russia and the foreign ministry underlined the position by using her face as the avatar on its Facebook page. That was changed to the Russian double-eagle symbol after her return.
A Russian official instructed Butina to push for Russian interests in the United States, according to an affidavit attached to a criminal complaint filed in the case by the Department of Justice. Agents of foreign governments are required to register with the Attorney General, which Butina failed to do.
As gleaned from her online footprint, Butina introduced herself as a Russian gun-rights activist eager to befriend gun rights advocates in the United States. She attended several events of the National Rifle Association and other conservative events. She was in a personal relationship with Paul Erickson, a conservative political activist, who was in a position to introduce her to people in political circles.
Prosecutors initially claimed she offered sex to a man in exchange for a job at a “special interest organization.” The claim made headlines in major media, but the prosecutors later backtracked as it turned out they misinterpreted Butina’s text messages with the man, only identified as “D.K.”
District Judge Tanya Chutkan chided the government, saying the error damaged Butina’s reputation and that she could tell within “five minutes” the texts were a joke.
Butina allegedly tried—and failed—to organize a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-candidate Donald Trump ahead of the 2016 election.
The July 25 letter by Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, matches the allegations that Byrne made on Fox News and CNN on Aug. 22. Byrne resigned as Overstock’s CEO the same day, due to concerns that his involvement with government investigations may affect the company.
Byrne said that he kept the FBI appraised of the details of his interactions with Butina, while maintaining a romantic relationship with her. As part of the reporting, Byrne told the bureau he was convinced that Butina was “not an agent of the Russian government or someone involved in espionage or illegal activities,” Driscoll wrote.
In the television interviews on Aug. 22, Byrne said he first met Butina in July 2015 at a conference in Las Vegas. After she had invited him to give a speech in Russia, he reported the contact to the FBI, due to a security clearance he held as part of foreign relations work. Byrne said the FBI gave him the green light to interact with Butina a “couple of months” later.
The relationship lasted until March 2016, when Butina again invited Byrne to Russia, this time to an event in St. Petersburg that would include a private 60-minute meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Byrne. At that point, the FBI told him to break off the relationship, Byrne said.
The bureau later asked him to “rekindle” his relationship with Butina, Byrne said.
Petr Savb, Ivan Pentchoukov, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.