WASHINGTON -- Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty to not registering as an agent for the Russian government, was sentenced to 18 months in U.S. prison, in a case that prosecutors said highlighted Russian efforts to infiltrate American political circles.
U.S. Judge Tanya Chutkan announced the sentence April 26 in Washington D.C. federal court, accepting what prosecutors had requested in their pre-sentencing filings.
Chutkan also ordered Butina to be deported to Russia immediately after she finishes her prison sentence, which is expected in January 2020 after receiving credit for the time she has already spent in U.S. custody.
Prior to the sentencing, Butina, 30, reportedly told the court she was "deeply" sorry and asked the court for mercy.
"My reputation is ruined, both here in the United States and abroad," she said. She also asked for "a chance to go home and restart my life."
Defense lawyers had argued that Butina was merely eager to build connections with U.S. political activists, particularly conservatives, and that her failure to register with the Justice Department was an oversight on her part.
Chutkan rejected those arguments.
"This was not a simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student," she was quoted as saying.
The case against Butina was separate from the now-concluded investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but it touched on many of the same issues related to how and why Russia sought to interfere in U.S. politics in and before the 2016 presidential election.
Prosecutors say that before and during her studies at American University in Washington, she sought to build relationships with U.S. conservative political groups, including the influential National Rifle Association, on behalf of at least one powerful Kremlin-connected lawmaker.
Butina pleaded guilty in December and agreed to cooperate with investigators. She has been held in custody since her arrest.
In her presentencing filing, Butina’s lawyers asked the court to sentence her to time already served.
"Although Maria has committed a serious offense, just punishment does not require additional incarceration," the lawyers wrote.
But in their presentencing filings, prosecutors sought to bolster their argument that Butina's actions were far from innocent.
"Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense of trying to gain access to classified information to send back to her home country. She was not a trained intelligence officer," prosecutors wrote in a memo filed April 19. "But the actions she took were nonetheless taken on behalf of the Russian Official for the benefit of the Russian Federation, and those actions had the potential to damage the national security of the United States."
The Kremlin has called the charges against Butina “groundless,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that Butina pleaded guilty “under pressure.”
"Maria Butina is a political prisoner, a victim of provocations by intelligence agencies and the arbitrary application of repressive U.S. laws. Under the current conditions of paranoid Russophobia, common sense has not prevailed," the Russian Embassy in Washington said in a post to Twitter after the sentence was handed down. "We demand her immediate release."
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow added to that statement, asserting that Butina had changed her plea to guilty given the potential for an even lengthier prison sentence.
"Our compatriot was convicted only for being a citizen of Russia," it said in a statement. "This sentence is a shameful stain on the American judicial system, which was made as the result of a blatant political order."