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Russian Foreign Ministry launches ‘Free Maria Butina’ campaign after alleged Russian agent is jailed

Maria Butina has pleaded not guilty to U.S. charges of conspiracy and failing to declare herself as an agent of a foreign government. (Press Service of Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation via EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Maria Butina's lawyer says the Russian student came to the United States to study at American University. U.S. prosecutors claim the 29-year-old has been operating as a covert Russian agent.

Lead federal prosecutor Erik Michael Kenerson said he doesn't think Butina was in Washington “just to attend American University” but instead was participating in a “covert influence campaign.”

Read the U.S. court filing seeking the detention of Maria Butina

On Wednesday, Butina was jailed pending her trial, and in response the Russian Foreign Ministry asked supporters to participate in an online “flash mob” and show their support for Butina by changing their social media avatars to a photo of her.

The ministry changed its own Twitter photo to feature Butina, and then tweeted in English, "#NewProfilePic, #FreeMariaButina.”

And on Saturday, the Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that in a phone call on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Butina should be released. Lavrov told his counterpart that she is being held "on the basis of fabricated charges."

As The Washington Post reported this week, a grand jury indicted the political science student Tuesday after prosecutors alleged that Butina tried “to advance the interests of the Russian Federation” by infiltrating certain American political organizations. Butina has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and failing to declare herself as an agent of a foreign government.

Since arriving in the United States, Butina has advocated for gun rights and attended National Rifle Association conventions. At one NRA meeting, she spoke with President Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr. She has also managed to gain access to a number of political players, attending high-profile events such as the National Prayer Breakfast.

On Friday, Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov told reporters in Moscow that the accusations against Butina are “totally illegal” and that Russia “will demand her release so that she can calmly go home.”

“They're trying to break this girl,” he said. “But she will not be broken.”

Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow contributed to this report.

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