Update: On Thursday, December 13, 2018, Maria Butina appeared before the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, where she pleaded guilty to conspiracy and acting under the direction of the Russian government.
As part of the plea deal, Butina faces the maximum of five years in prison and the prospect of deportation, waived her right of appeal.
The judge presiding over the case, Tanya Chutkan, said that upon completion of the sentence, Butina will be denied the possibility of obtaining U.S. citizenship or a U.S. visa. That runs contrary to Russian journalist Vadim Gorshenin’s claim that Butina was set to receive U.S. citizenship “after months of torture in an American prison.”
Her lawyers had previously argued that "prolonged depravation of human contact and interaction is starting to have a profound psychological impact” on their client. But when asked, in the courtroom, if she was of sound mind to make the plea, Butina said that she was not suffering from mental illness or undue psychological stress. Accordingly, we have changed the verdict of the fact check from "unclear" to "false."
The original wording of the fact check:
As the Russian Foreign Ministry uses her photograph for its profile picture on social media accounts, Maria Butina is set to be granted U.S. citizenship, “shame for Fatherland” – a Russian journalist wrote in his channel in the Telegram messenger on November 29. The post instantly became viral, shared by the most influential Telegram channels. We find no evidence to back this up.
In July, Maria Butina was arrested and charged with conspiracy and working as an undeclared foreign agent of the Russian government. Prosecutors allege she sought to cultivate ties with U.S. political groups and individuals -- primarily conservatives -- on behalf of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s Central Bank and a former Russian senator with alleged ties to the Russian mafia.
Torshin and Butina worked to establish a relationship between the National Rifle Association and a Russian analog which Butina set up in 2011 – “Right to Bear Arms.” That relationship was allegedly used as the springboard to establish a “backchannel” that “could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
Torshin was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in April along with other Russian businessmen and politicians for “advancing Russia’s malign activities.”
Butina’s attorneys say their client was “nothing more than a student with an interest in U.S. politics who hoped to improve bilateral relations.”
On Wednesday, November 28, a federal judge rejected Butina’s request that she be removed from solitary confinement and moved to general population at a detention center in Alexandria, Virginia, where she is being housed.
In a filling submitted by her lawyers on Tuesday, November 27, Butina’s lawyer said “she has now been in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day for 6 consecutive days with no prospective release date.” They added that if the court fails to intervene, “she will continue to be held in this manner and ultimately require the attention of mental health professionals.”
Her lawyers said she had briefly been placed in general population after spending over two months in solitary confinement, only to be returned to solitary confinement on November 21 after allegedly providing another inmate her lawyer’s cell phone number.
On Thursday, November 29, Russia’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova requested that Butina’s “harsh” conditions be eased.
Also on November 29, Butina’s father Valery told the Tass news agency he expects his daughter to make a pretrial deal with the prosecution. Press accounts earlier in the month indicated a similar outcome.
The same day, Russian journalist Vadim Gorshenin wrote in a post on Telegram that it was the Russian Foreign Ministry’s “shame” that it was not “prepared for real actions to protect the rights of Russian citizens.”
Stating “it is not clear what’ Butina was arrested for, Gorshenin said it would be possible to “arrest more than a dozen American citizens” in Moscow on the same grounds given for Butina’s arrest.
He concluded that Butina “will be granted American citizenship” after months of torture in an American prison, adding that he is “ashamed for my Fatherland.”
There is a basis for saying Butina’s extended time in solitary does constitute torture.
In 2013, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Juan Méndez, urged that solitary confinement, if imposed at all, is only used “in exceptional circumstances.”
In 2011, Mendez said solitary confinement should be banned as “a punishment or extortion technique.”
“Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pretrial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” he said.
But that conclusion is not universal, as some scholarly studies have concluded otherwise. For example, a study by University of British Columbia scholars found that there are no “dramatic differences” between convicts who have experienced solitary confinement versus those who haven’t. The authors studied actual convicts, whose experiences they found “do not support the view that [solitary confinement] in prisons is universally damaging, aversive, or intolerable.”
Gorshenin’s claim of Butina being granted U.S. citizenship appears to be baseless, possibly confusing her case with those of a few spies who have secured citizenship. Butina is not specifically accused of spying, but instead acting as an undeclared foreign agent.
For argument’s sake, let’s look at spies and citizenship. As a general rule, individuals caught spying under diplomatic cover are arrested and then expelled. Spies caught operating without diplomatic cover are open to prosecution and incarceration, although they can be exchanged in spy swaps, as was the case in the so-called “Illegals Program”.
The history of when and how former Russian agents and defectors have secured U.S. citizenship is complicated, as demonstrated by the case of Janosh and Victorya Neumann, in particular. The couple offered information to the CIA, but in complicated set of circumstances ended up hiring a lawyer in order to win “immigration status” in the U.S.
Even if Butina were to reach a plea agreement, that would not be equivalent with working to help a U.S spy agency. And no federal prosecutor or any other U.S. official has suggested Butina will be granted U.S. citizenship, either as a part of a yet-to-be-finalized plea deal or for any other reason. Nor has the government said the opposite
Polygraph.info, therefore, finds Gorshenin’s claim on citizenship to be unclear, though his claim of “torture” in reference to the solitary confinement is a subject of the ongoing debate.