Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday blasted the U.S. sentencing of self-styled Russian political gadfly and gun-rights activist Maria Butina as an "outrage" and a "travesty of justice."
Butina, 30, was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Friday for her role in a Russian effort to infiltrate U.S. political organizations. The sharp response from Putin over her case could have negative implications for an American corporate security executive who was arrested in Moscow in early January on espionage charges.
The U.S. sentence means Butina will serve another nine months in custody before she is deported to Russia. She already has spent nine months in jail while her case was pending.
Butina, 30, was accused of engaging in a years-long campaign to court politically connected Americans and infiltrate political organizations, like the National Rifle Association, on behalf of the Kremlin. She was indicted and arrested in July and pleaded guilty in December to acting as a foreign agent for Russia without registering in the United States.
Who Russia arrested: American Paul Whelan was in Russia for wedding, not to spy, family says
"This case is not simply about failing to notify the attorney general," U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said. "It is because she didn't register that her conduct was so dangerous."
Putin, speaking to reporters in Beijing, was blunt with his assessment of the conviction and sentencing: “It’s an outrage.”
“It’s not clear what she was convicted of or what crime she committed," he said, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.
He said it was a prime example of "saving face."
"They got, grabbed and threw the girl behind the bars, but there's nothing to charge her with," he said. "Yes, nothing to charge her with. But they sentenced her to 18 months so it would not look completely nonsensical, to show that she is guilty of something."
In a court filing last week, prosecutors said for the first time that her efforts had the hallmarks of a Russian espionage operation, suggesting that she was acting as a "spotter" to help Russian spies identify Americans they could cultivate.
In the sentencing, Chutkan acknowledged that Butina, who attended graduate school in Washington, was a "legitimate" and "hardworking" student. But the judge also said that while studying at American University, Butina sought to collect information about U.S. political figures under the direction of a Russian official at a time when the Kremlin was trying to undermine the American political system.
Not long after Butina, who was arrested in July 2018, entered her guilty plea, Russia picked up American corporate security executive Paul Whelan.
The Russian Federal Security Service said at the time of his arrest that Whelan, 48, was detained "while on a spy mission." The FSB said the investigation was continuing but that Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of espionage.
Whelan's family said he was in Moscow to attend a wedding. The American also holds British, Canadian and Irish passports.
Russia historically has used a tit-for-tat response to U.S. arrests of Russian, or Soviet, citizens on spy charges. Such arrests can be used as diplomatic leverage or in some cases for a swap.
Whelan's brother, David, told Russia's TASS news agency in early April the family was told the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostages Affairs "has not made a decision about Paul's case."
"The U.S. government continues to wait for facts," he added, according to TASS. "It is not clear what additional diplomatic pressure is being brought to bear to encourage Russian cooperation," he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia's Vladimir Putin blasts U.S. sentencing of Maria Butina as a 'travesty of justice'