On Tuesday, April 30, Russian lawmakers sent a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposing it draft a so-called “Butina’s list” of U.S. nationals whom had allegedly violated the fundamental rights of Russian citizens.
The list is named after Maria Butina, who on April 26 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for acting as an agent of the Russian government without registering with the U.S. Justice Department.
The Russian lawmakers claimed the legal case against Maria Butina was initiated “illegally” to reinforce the “myth of Russian interference” in U.S. affairs, reported the pro-Kremlin Russian daily Izvestia, which obtained a copy of their letter.
“Under unprecedented pressure and in inhumane prison conditions, having been arrested in July 2018, the Russian national was forced to plead guilty to what she was charged with only in order to avoid the huge prison sentence that the prosecution openly threatened Maria with,” Izvestia quoted the letter as saying.
That message was mirrored by the Russian Embassy in the U.S., which released a statement decrying the “blatant lawlessness of the U.S. Justice System” – which, it said, forced Butina to “self-incriminate.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a similar statement, saying her confession had been “coerced through harsh imprisonment conditions and threats of a lengthy sentence.”
Polygraph.info previously looked into claims by Lavrov that Butina’s prison conditions were “designed to break her will,” and found there was no evidence Butina has faced conditions that deviate from U.S. criminal justice system norms, although criticism of the plea-bargaining system and the use of solitary confinement are a valid (albeit separate) issue.
Our judgment that the lawmakers’ letter is "misleading" speaks to the assertion that Butina faced “unprecedented pressure” as well as “inhumane prison conditions.” The young Russian, herself, said that did not happen. As in our previous fact check, Polygraph.info points to practices many advocates find troubling.
As Catherine Gallagher, an associate professor at George Mason University’s Criminology, Law and Society unit, told Polygraph.info at the time, claiming Butina was unduly pressured to plea is “very hard to argue in the U.S. because it’s the norm.”
Butina herself, in a recent interview with Russian reporters, denied she faced torture, despite previous claims by Russian officials to the contrary.
"There was no torture, but I really was held in isolation for a long time,” TASS on April 30 quoted her as telling journalists in a telephone interview. “The first 35 days in a Washington prison, then (after a two-month break) 35 days in isolation in the Alexandria jail, then 38 more days. For 22 hours, I was locked alone in my cell. For two hours at night, from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., I was given time for a shower, to use my phone – absolutely anything."
“Butina said that food was delivered directly to her cell,” TASS reported. ‘This is rather unpleasant and tough psychologically.' she stated.”
In another report on that interview, state-owned television channel Rossiya-1 described Butina as having “no complaints at the moment” regarding her incarceration, saying her life is characterized by “work, gymnastics and books.”
Butina spoke of the wealth of Russian literature available in the prison library, adding she is using this time to invest in her own development.
During her sentencing, when asked by the judge, “Are you pleading guilty not for any other reason but because you are guilty?” Butina answered, “Yes, guilty.”
The U.S. Justice Department did not reply to our request for comment by the time of publication.
Regardless, Polygraph.info finds no evidence that Butina faced “unprecedented pressure” during her incarceration. In addition, while it is arguable that systemic issues led Butina to accept a plea deal to avoid a stiffer prison sentence, that reality is faced by all defendants navigating the U.S. criminal justice system.
Polygraph.info therefore finds the claims of the Russian lawmakers to be misleading.