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Russian Agent Maria Butina Sentenced to 18 Months in Prison

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  • Maria Butina, a Russian operative who conspired to gain access to conservative circles in the U.S. to advance Russian interests, was sentenced to 18 months in prison Friday.
  • In December, Butina pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent in the U.S. while plotting an influence campaign with a Russian government official that involved infiltrating the NRA and other influential conservative groups.
  • Butina has been in jail since her arrest in July and will receive credit for the 9 months she already served, she will be deported back to Russia once her term is complete.

Maria Butina Sentenced in Federal Court

Russia national Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Friday for conspiring to infiltrate U.S. conservative political circles to promote Russian interests.

Butina pleaded guilty in December to one count of conspiracy to act as a Russian agent in the U.S. without registering with the Department of Justice. She admitted to conspiring with a senior Russian official to access the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other conservative organizations to open backchannel lines of communication.

She also admitted to using her contacts in conservative political circles at the National Rifle Association and at the National Prayer Breakfast to sway U.S. relations with Russia, as part of a broader Russian-influence campaign.

Butina’s efforts started in 2015 and continued until she was arrested and detained in July of 2018. She has been incarcerated since her arrest and will receive credit for the nine months she has already served. Once her sentence is complete, she will be granted her request to be deported to Russia.

The Defense

Before receiving her sentence, Butina said that she never intended on causing harm. She said she came to the U.S. to receive a graduate degree from American University in Washington D.C. because she “wanted a future career in the international policy.”

“At the same time, I wished to mend relations while improving my own resume,” Butina continued, “So I sought to build bridges between my motherland and the country I grew to love.”

Butina claimed that if she had known she needed to register as a foreign agent with the government, she would have done so.

“Though it was not my intention to harm the American people, I did that by not notifying the Attorney General of my actions. I deeply regret these events,” Butina said. “Please accept my apology and allow me to begin again.”

Butina’s lawyers also emphasized these points, describing her activities as “friendship citizen diplomacy” rather than a “nefarious” campaign to infiltrate conservative organizations to advance Russian political interests.

The Prosecution  

On the other side, the prosecution argued that while Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense, she still gathered sensitive information by gaining access to people in the highest places at some of the most influential conservative organizations.

“The value of this information to the Russian Federation is immense,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik M. Kenerson, the lead prosecutor for the case. “Such operations can cause great damage to our national security by giving covert agents access to our country and powerful individuals who can influence its direction.”

The prosecution also claimed that Republican operative Paul Erickson, who was also Butina’s boyfriend, connected her with prominent conservatives. The information she received from those individuals, as well as Erickson, was reported back to Russian officials.

Prosecutors argued that Butina’s relationship with Erickson, who is identified as “U.S. Person 1” in court documents, was purely for political gain.

“For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” prosecutors wrote last year. “Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.”

Erickson has not been charged in Butina’s case so far, but he was indicted in February in an unrelated fraud scheme.

The Decision

The prosecution’s arguments were ultimately echoed by U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who oversaw the case. While giving her sentence, Chutkan said Butina was indeed a legitimate graduate student, but concluded that “she was not simply seeking to learn about the U.S. political system.”

“She was seeking to collect information about individuals and organizations that could be helpful to the Russian government,” said Chutkan, “Under the direction of a Russian official and for the benefit of the Russian government, at a time when the Russian government was working to interfere in and affect the American electoral process.”

Chutkan described Butina’s networking with the NRA, efforts to arrange for NRA leadership to visit Russia, and other actions as explicit and intentional attempts to establish backchannel communication lines to promote Russian interests.

“The conduct was sophisticated and penetrated deep into political organizations,” Chutkan said. Chutkan also argued that while Butina’s actions “might” have been legal if she had registered as an agent for the Russian government, the fact that she did not disclose this information was exactly the reason why her actions “were so dangerous and constituted a threat to our democracy.”

Her failure to register, Chutkan asserted, was so harmful because it prevented the government, American University, the NRA, and other groups from understanding exactly what she was doing, and taking actions in response.

“Diplomacy Project”

In her plea papers, Butina stated that she conducted the infiltration campaign under the direction of Alexander Torshin, a former Russian government official and lifetime NRA member.

Butina called the plan “Diplomacy Project,” and described it as an effort to form relationships with people high-up in conservative organizations over the course of multiple years as a way of eventually reaching the Republican winner of the 2016 election.

Butina planned the strategy in March 2015 and intended on specifically targeting gun rights groups, citing the NRA’s influence on the Republican Party.

Ironically, Butina’s sentence comes on the same Donald Trump is attending to massive NRA conference in Indianapolis.

For two years, she attended conferences and events to meet with Republican presidential candidates and those close to them.

She went to NRA conventions, attended Donald Trump’s inaugural ball, organized “friendship dinners” with influential Americans, and arranged for a Russian delegation to attend the distinguished National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

Butina accessed to those groups by creating a gun rights group in Russia and working as an interpreter for Torshin.

Butina’s sentence marks the first time a Russian national has been convicted for attempting to influence American policy before the 2016 election. However, her case was not handled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and she was not one of the 13 Russians named as part the indictments resulting from the Muller Report.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (NBC News)

International

U.K Prime Minister Theresa May Announces Resignation

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  • Theresa May announced her resignation as Prime Minister in a statement Friday.
  • May’s announcement comes after repeated failures to pass a Brexit deal, which prompted factions in her Conservative Party to push for her resignation and threaten a vote of no confidence.
  • May stated her resignation will be effective June 7, though she will remain as a caretaker prime minister until a new leader is appointed.

May’s Announcement

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May announced Friday that she will resign effective June 7.

May became prime minister in 2016 after U.K. voters decided to leave the European Union. Since then, she has been tasked with leading the Brexit process, a task that has largely defined her three-year-long tenure as Prime Minister.

“I negotiated the terms of our exit and a new relationship with our closest neighbors that protects jobs, our security and our union,” May said. “I have done everything I can to convince M.P.s to back that deal. Sadly, I have not been able to do so. I tried three times.”

“But it is now clear to me that it is in the best interests of the country for a new prime minister to lead that effort,” she continued. May also said the process to elect a new leader will begin as early as next week, adding that she will remain as prime minister until that undertaking is completed.

However, the full election process will likely take several weeks, meaning that May will remain as a sort of caretaker prime minister until a new leader is inaugurated. She will stay on as a Member of Parliament after she steps down as prime minister, according to reports.

“It is, and will always remain, a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit,” said May. “It will be for my successor to seek a way forward that honors the result of the referendum.”

Lead-Up to Resignation

May’s resignation is not unexpected. Members of Parliament in her own Conservative Party have been pushing her to step down.

Her announcement followed a meeting with Graham Brady, a powerful backbench Conservative leader, who informed her she would face a second no-confidence vote if she did not resign. May survived a separate vote of no confidence in December, but many still considered the vote the beginning of the end.

May has repeatedly failed to create unity on a Brexit deal, both within her own party and with the opposition Labour Party.

After more than two years of negotiations, May first put a Brexit deal before Parliament in January, but MPs voted against the deal by a 230 vote margin – the biggest defeat in Parliament’s history.

She proposed a second deal in March, but that deal was again defeated, though with a smaller margin of 149 votes. After the second deal failed, May tried a new tactic: she promised that if the deal passed, she would resign.

While this option seemed to appeal to the factions in her Conservative Party that favored her resignation, she still did not get enough votes to pass the third iteration of the deal. May tried for a final time to reach a deal last week, telling Conservative MPs that she would set a date for her resignation after Parliament approved a fourth Brexit deal.

The final straw came earlier this week when May’s “new” deal failed to satisfy both parties yet again. May later backed down after it became clear that the fourth deal, like the three before it, was inevitably doomed.

What Next?

May’s resignation will now usher in the race for a new Prime Minister.

Already, a number of Conservative candidates are vying to take May’s spot as prime minister. Some even campaigned for the position before May formally announced her departure. The current front-runner for the position is former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who lead the Brexit campaign in 2016.

Others are expected to run, and the timeframe for the election process depends on how many people put their hats into the ring.

Candidates must be nominated by two other MPs to run. In the case of only one candidate, that person automatically becomes the new leader. If there are more than two candidates, lawmakers vote to choose two candidates.

Once the two candidates are selected, all 120,000 Conservative Party members cast their vote for the next prime minister.

Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis said in a statement that MPs would begin the voting process on June 10. He also said that the new leader is to take office before Parliament’s summer recess, which usually begins in late July.

Until then, May will remain in office. The new leader will now be tasked with negotiating and passing a successful Brexit deal before the deadline on October 31. That deadline has already been extended twice from its original March 29 date.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Vox) (BBC)

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International

Narendra Modi Re-Elected as Prime Minister of India

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  • India’s incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi won re-election in a surprising landslide victory.
  • The election, which was the biggest in the history of the world, was viewed as a referendum on Modi, who many feel has not fulfilled his campaign promises from 2014.
  • Modi campaigned on Hindu nationalism and national security this election and now is faced with impending economic problems, religious divisions, and increased tensions with Pakistan.

Election 2019

After six weeks of voting, the largest election in the history of the world has come to a close with incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi winning his re-elected by a landslide.

With almost all of the votes counted, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won 303 seats in India’s 543-seat Parliament, which is much more than the 272 seats required for a majority.

Source: Google

The vote count is expected to wrap up later today, but Modi has already declared victory, writing  “India wins yet again!” in a tweet before appearing on stage to give a formal victory speech a few hours later.

Modi’s opponent, Rahul Gandhi, who is the leader of the opposition Congress Party, formally conceded the election in a news conference. “I said during the campaign that the people were the masters, and today they have given their verdict,” he said. “We concede in this election that Narendra Modi and the BJP have won.”

Gandhi also took to Twitter to congratulate Modi.

Narendra Modi

Modi may have won by a landslide, but his huge victory came as a surprise.

Before the election, the majority of analysts had predicted that the BJP would lose seats in Parliament. Now, it looks like the BJP is actually set to win more seats than they had before.

Many viewed this election as a sort of referendum on Modi, who is a strong Hindu nationalist. Modi and the BJP were first elected back in 2014 and they were extremely popular. In fact, they were so popular that the BJP became the first political party to win an outright Parliament majority in 30 years.

Modi is considered a hard-working, charismatic leader, with humble roots as a tea-seller. In 2014, he campaigned on improving India’s economy and cracking down on corruption. However, those promises have been largely unfulfilled.

Modi has not delivered nearly as many jobs as he has promised. Unemployment in India has also grown to 7.2 percent in the last year alone and the unemployment rate is currently the highest it has been in 45 years.

Modi also promised to double the income of farmers, who played a large role in electing him in 2014. However, in the last few years, India has seen the continued trend of farmers’ operating costs going up while incomes have gone down.

In fact, some of Modi’s economic and anti-corruption policies have also gone horribly wrong. In 2016, he instituted a sweeping demonetization policy that involved pulling 86 percent of India’s cash from circulation.

He argued that it would crack down on money that had not been taxed and fake currency that was being used to fund terrorist organizations, but India’s economy is largely cash-based, so the move ultimately hurt businesses and the poor.

Experts have said the policy did not actually hit the kind of money it targetted.

2019 Election

One campaign promise Modi did fulfill while in office was pushing and implementing Hindu nationalist policies.

As a result, in the 2019 election, he campaigned on Hindu nationalism and national security, telling voters that he was the only one who would protect India’s security and combat terrorism. In that regard, India’s recent conflict with their main rival and neighbor Pakistan seems to have helped him.

In February, a militant group attacked an Indian-controlled region of Kashmir, killing dozens of soldiers. Modi responded by promising forceful retaliation and later claimed his government had struck a major terrorist training camp in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, killing “a very large number” of militants.

While Pakistan has denied that a camp was hit, Modi’s approval rating still skyrocketed from 32 percent to 63 percent.

What Now?

Modi’s strong brand of nationalism and his national security platform seemed to have propelled him to Thursday’s huge win, but despite his success, Modi’s troubles are far from over.

Now, Modi and the BJP will have more pressure to address India’s economic problems. In addition to growing unemployment, many fear that India’s economy is slowing and that the country could be heading into a recession. That will be exacerbated as Modi faces demands to provide jobs for the millions of young people who are now entering the workforce.

Modi’s win is also expected to widen religious divisions in the country. His brand of staunch Hindu nationalism is appealing to large swaths of India’s population.

While India is about 80 percent Hindu, it is also home to a number of other religions, and India’s religious minorities have said they have felt increasingly afraid and marginalized.

Since Modi took power, there has been a dramatic rise in hate crimes. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 44 people were killed between May 2015 and December 2018, and most of those people were Muslim.

India’s Muslim population is considerable, with around 200 million people that make up nearly 15 percent of the country. Now, Muslims in India are worried the BJP’s rise will disempower them, especially as the number of seats Muslim parties hold in Parliament is expected to fall to an all-time low.

Of course, there is also the question of Pakistan. Once it became clear that Modi was set to win the election, Pakistan’s military announced that it had successfully fired and tested a ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

At the same time, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulated Modi on Twitter, and said that he will “look forward to working with him for peace, progress and prosperity in South Asia.”

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Vox) (BBC)

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International

Canada Hires Company to Remove Its Trash After the Philippines Announced Plans to Send It Back at Its Own Expense

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  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered his government to ship tons of trash back to Canada that he says was illegally dumped in the Philippines.
  • However, shortly after this announcement, Canada said that it would hire a shipping company to remove the trash by the end of June.
  • The trash was originally sent to the Philippians between 2013 and 2014 by Chronic Plastics, Inc., a private Canadian company.

Trash War

The Philippines announced Wednesday plans to ship tons of trash that it says was illegally dumped in Manila, back to Canada after years of waiting for something to be done.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his government to hire a private shipping company to take 69 containers of trash back. “The government of the Philippines will shoulder all expenses. And we do not mind,” said Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo.

“If Canada will not accept their trash, we will leave the same within its territorial waters or 12 nautical miles out to sea from the baseline of any of their country’s shores.”

“The president’s stance is as principled as it is uncompromising: The Philippines as an independent sovereign nation must not be treated as trash by other foreign nations. We hope this message resonates well with the other countries of the world.”

Between 2013 and 2014, the approximately 2,450 tons of trash was sent to the Philippines by Chronic Plastics Inc., a private Canadian company, under the guise of being recyclables. Once it arrived in Manila, inspectors found that the containers were filled with “non-recyclable plastics, household wastes, and adult diapers,” according to the Philippine News Agency.

Canada’s Response

After Duterte’s announcement, Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said that the government had hired Bolloré Logistics Canada to remove the trash by the end of June.

McKenna also said that all the costs associated with the preparation, transfer, shipment, and disposal of the waste will be covered by the Canadian government.

As of now it is unclear which country’s plan will be implemented.

Past Moves

Over the years Canada and the Philippines have been in multiple talks to find a solution for the trash. Last month, Duterte threatened to go to war over the trash.

We’ll declare war against them,” Duterte said, “I will advise Canada that your garbage is on the way. Prepare a grand reception. Eat it if you want to.”

Check out our past coverage on the trash war.

Earlier this month, Canada missed a May 15th deadline to repatriate the trash and the Philippines removed top diplomats from the country. This trash issue is not the only conflict the two countries have had. Last year the Philippines canceled a multimillion-dollar agreement for 16 helicopters after Canada questioned their intended use.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (CBC) (CNN Philippines)

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