- 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.
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.
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 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.
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)
Ebola Outbreak in Congo Declared Global Health Emergency
- The World Health Organization declared the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
- Since the outbreak began in August 2018, over 1,600 people have died.
- WHO does not see Ebola as a current global threat, but wants to draw international attention to the outbreak to increase global engagement.
- This is the worst outbreak of the disease since the one between 2014-2016, which killed over 11,000 people.
The World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Wednesday.
The outbreak began in August 2018 and has killed over 1,600 people, with over 2,500 confirmed cases. It is considered the worst outbreak since the one that began in 2014 and ended in 2016, which killed over 11,000 people.
On Monday, the outbreak escalated when the city of Goma, which sits on the border of Rwanda, saw its first confirmed case. Goma is home to nearly 2 million people and has an international airport. This put pressure on the WHO to evaluate the situation.
“It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts,” WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
“We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system. Extraordinary work has been done for almost a year under the most difficult circumstances. We all owe it to these responders — coming from not just WHO but also government, partners and communities — to shoulder more of the burden.”
By declaring it an emergency of international concern, the WHO is hoping to draw worldwide attention to the outbreak so that global efforts can help to stop it.
The WHO also released recommendations for the DRC to follow during this emergency. This includes strengthening at-risk populations, conducting cross-border screenings and screenings at main internal roads, and using optimal vaccine strategies, among other practices.
They also listed recommendations for neighboring countries, which includes working urgently with partners to improve their preparedness, and mapping population movements and sociological patterns that can predict the risk of disease spread.
As of now, the WHO is not concerned about a global outbreak.
“Risk remains very high at national and regional levels but still low at global level,” their statement continued.
Because the risk is not yet global, the organization wants to emphasize that countries should not restrict trade and other business with the DRC. In fact, they believe that if countries do so, the outbreak would only worsen.
“No country should close its borders or place any restrictions on travel and trade,” their statement encourages. “Such measures are usually implemented out of fear and have no basis in science. They push the movement of people and goods to informal border crossings that are not monitored, thus increasing the chances of the spread of disease,” WHO’s statement reads.
Setbacks in Treatment
The DRC has faced many challenges while dealing with this outbreak. Earlier this week, Dr. Tedros spoke about how attacks on Ebola responders have made things difficult. Since January there have been almost 200 attacks resulting in seven deaths.
“We are dealing with one of the world’s most dangerous viruses in one of the world’s most dangerous areas,” he said in a statement. “Every attack sets us back. Every attack makes it more difficult to trace contacts, vaccinate and perform safe burials. Every attack gives Ebola an opportunity to spread.”
According to a New York Times report, some of this violence comes from mourners who are upset with responders after losing loved ones to the disease. One person who works in burials told the Times that mourners have threatened to throw workers into open graves. The report also said that in once instance, a mourner brandished a hand grenade, resulting in everyone scattering and a 3-year-old Ebola victim not being buried.
Mourners are not the only ones believed to be behind the violence, however, the DRC is still looking into who else is participating in attacks and why.
The WHO has also criticized for being slow to respond to the outbreak. This was their fourth meeting discussing whether or not to declare an international emergency of this kind. Many believe they should have declared it at one of their earlier meetings.
Still, progress has been made in treating the outbreak. Right now there is no complete cure for Ebola, however, research published earlier this month showed that two experimental treatments were found to be effective.
Vaccines have also been effective during this outbreak. According to the WHO, over 161,000 people in the DRC have been vaccinated and over 10,000 people in three surrounding countries have been vaccinated as well.
See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (The Atlantic) (USA Today)
Amnesty International Condemns LGBTI Discrimination in South Korea Military
- A report by Amnesty International outlines the discrimination and abuse that gay men serving in South Korea’s military experience.
- Article 92-6 in South Korea’s Military Criminal Act criminalizes sex between two men in the military.
- Amnesty International says that this law opens the door for gay soldiers to be mistreated, which has included verbal taunting and sexual assault.
- Soldiers who spoke to Amnesty International said their experiences have been humiliating, have taken a toll on their mental health, and have even led to some attempting suicide.
Amnesty International Releases Report
Amnesty International is calling on South Korea to appeal its law that bans same-sex relationships between men in the military after their report shows that soldiers experience abuse, assault, and humiliation as a result of it.
In a report published Thursday titled “Serving in Silence: LGBTI People in South Korea’s Military,” Amnesty International speaks to several soldiers from South Korea’s military who detail personal experiences with discrimination.
According to Article 92-6 of the South Korea Military Criminal Act, sexual relations between two men in the military, either on or off duty, fall under the “indecent acts” clause. This can be punishable by up to two years in prison.
While it is still illegal for same-sex couples to marry and adopt in South Korea, homosexuality is not criminalized for all citizens. This article only applies to those serving in the military.
Amnesty International says that by having this law, South Korea is opening the door to discrimination.
“Criminalization creates an environment where discrimination is tolerated, and even encouraged,” the report says.
“Homophobic and transphobic individuals can view this law as tacit permission to target LGBTI people inside and outside the military,” it continues.
The report also said that the first step to ending this discrimination is removing the article.
“Decriminalization does not solve the entire issue, but it is a crucial first step towards respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of LGBTI people,” the report states.
Charges Made Under Article 92-6
People have been charged under this article in the past. In 2017, authorities actively looked to identify soldiers who they believed were engaging in sexual acts with other men. They ended up charging over 20 soldiers as a result.
One man who was charged in this, who the report identifies as “Yeo-jun Kim” told Amnesty International that investigators asked him personal questions throughout the process.
“The investigators barraged me with outrageous questions, questions about what sex positions I used and where did I ejaculate,” he said.
He also said that they looked through his phone and asked him to identify other LGBTI people.
“The authorities came to me like peeping Toms,” he added. “They should have maintained confidentiality. I have lost faith and trust in people.”
Soldiers Face Abuse
In addition charges, gay soldiers are often subject to physical and verbal abuse.
The report outlines the story of one soldier they identify as “U” who served around a decade ago.
“One night, I saw a soldier being sexually abused,” U told Amnesty International. “When he got angry, the person abusing him who was his senior started to beat him fiercely and forced him to drink from the toilet bowl. A few days later, the abused soldier made up his mind to report the incident and approached me for my help.”
When the superior learned about the possible report, he threatened to beat U.
“I was then subjected to physical violence and humiliation for three hours,” U continued. “Which included being forced to have oral and anal sex with the original victim while the senior soldier made taunting remarks, such as: ‘Don’t you want to have sex with a woman-like man?’”
U added that this assault and humiliation drove him, and three others who experienced similar situations, to attempt suicide, which resulted in them being taken to a psychiatric hospital. Three of them were dishonorably discharged, while U was taken back to his squad and labeled as a “soldier of interest.”
Toll on Mental Health
Many soldiers say that the harassment and assault they are subject to takes a mental toll on them, resulting in many going to military health facilities. The report says that the facilities often have poor conditions, cramped spaces, and soldiers often question the qualifications of those working there.
One soldier, identified as “Jeram” was regularly groped and assaulted. He was labeled as a soldier of interest when his unit learned he was gay. He told Amnesty International that he ended up in one of these facilities.
The hospital deemed him “rebellious” after he did not comply with some of their requests, resulting in him losing the right to make phone calls or walk out in fresh air once a week.
“The hospital tried to diagnose me as ‘unfit for service’ with staff members even instructing me how to act mentally incompetent so that I could get discharged,” Jeram said. “I refused to be labelled in this way. I felt I had lived my life well prior to the military and knew that I was not the source of the problem. This whole experience led me to attempt suicide because I lost the will to live.”
He then said that one panelist, who he did not think was a licensed medical professional, told him during one of his reviews, “You are so disobedient. Even if I shoot you here, it will simply get covered up as a suspicious death and that will be it. Then, the compensation your family would receive will be even lower than for a military dog.”
Amnesty International’s report is the latest in international organizations fighting for rights for gay soldiers in South Korea. In March, Human Rights Watch submitted an amicus brief urging the country to repeal Article 92-6.
“Article 92-6 violates the rights of LGBT persons in two distinct ways,” the brief said. “First, it violates the substance of fundamental rights. Second, it discriminates against service members based on their sexual orientation. The criminalization per se of consensual adult same-sex conduct is a violation of the right to privacy under international law.”
See what others are saying: (Reuters) (CNN) (New York Times)
Sudan Military and Opposition Reach Power-Sharing Deal
- Sudanese opposition and military leaders agreed Friday to set up a joint military-civilian council that will rotate power between the two groups until elections are held in three years.
- The agreement comes after weeks of stalled negotiations between a coalition of opposition groups and the Transitional Military Council that came to power after President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by a military coup in April.
- Mediators stepped up negotiation efforts earlier this week after tens of thousands of demonstrators staged the largest protest since the violence on June 3.
- Thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate the agreement as leaders on both sides expressed optimism, but others called for continued protests over concerns that the military will not hold up its end of the deal.
Sudan’s military and opposition leaders reached an agreement to share power until elections can be held, mediators announced Friday.
The deal comes after weeks of stalled negotiations between civilian opposition leaders and the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC), which took power after Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a military coup in April.
Al-Bashir’s removal followed months of protests dating back to December 2018. Those protests continued after the TMC installed itself, with demonstrators demanding that the military rulers hand over power to a civilian-led government.
The new power-sharing deal will establish a joint military-civilian sovereign council that will govern Sudan until elections are held in three years.
Military and civilian leaders will rotate control of the council, with the military leading the council for the first 21 months, and the civilians leading the council for the remaining 18 months.
The council will be composed of five members of the military, five civilians, and an 11th seat that will be agreed on by both sides. The agreement also stipulates the appointment of a cabinet of ministers and the formation of a legislative council.
Leaders on both sides expressed optimism about the agreement.
“This agreement opens the way for the formation of the institutions of the transitional authority,” said Omar al-Degair, a leader of the opposition coalition who negotiated with the military. “And we hope that this is the beginning of a new era.”
“This agreement is comprehensive and does not exclude anyone,” said General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy head of the TMC.
Opposition leaders and the TMC also agreed to launch an independent investigation into the violence that began in early June, after a military crackdown on protesters left mass casualties.
On June 3, paramilitary forces attacked a long-standing protest camp outside military headquarters that had been the site of ongoing demonstrations against military rule since al-Bashir was toppled.
Opposition medics said that more than 100 people were killed in the violence, while the government has said the death toll was 62.
General Dagalo, known as Hemeti, leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces that protest leaders have accused of perpetrating the crackdown.
Following the attack, the TMC said they would no longer negotiate with the protestors, and called for snap elections. They later went back on that decision and said they wanted negotiations, but were rebuked by the protest leaders, who refused to negotiate with them after the attack.
They later went back on that decision and said they wanted negotiations, but were rebuked by the protest leaders, who refused to negotiate with them after the attack.
However, the African Union and leaders in neighboring Ethiopia stepped in to lead mediation between the two.
Those efforts ramped up earlier this week, after tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of Sudanese cities, marking the biggest protests since the June 3 crackdown. Seven more were killed in Sunday’s protests, and more than 100 were injured.
Skeptical Hope for the Future
Thousands of people took to the streets of the Sudanese capital Khartoum to celebrate the agreement.
However, many protestors called for continued demonstrations to put pressure on the military to follow through with the deal.
“We would like to see many more guarantees from the TMC because they’ve made many promises on handing over power only to backtrack later on,” a protester named Mohamed Ismail told Al Jazeera.
Another protester named Lena al-Sheikh told BBC that the demonstrators “definitely wanted much more” from the deal, and added that many are a “little bit” skeptical regarding the details.
“The military council has shown that […] there was brutality against protesters,” she said. “People died, people were hurt and we were thinking maybe this is never going to happen, maybe we are never going to reach an agreement.”
Other experts say the deal falls short of opposition demands for a fully-civilian led council. Sudan-based journalist Yousra Elbagir pointed out in a tweet that many people in Sudan do not know the details of the deal, because of the ongoing internet blackout in the country.
The internet has been shut off for a month now in Sudan, as military leaders have attempted to suppress communications and public gatherings.
Others, however, expressed excitement and optimism for the future.
“We have won a victory against injustice,” a protestor named Shihab Salah told Reuters. “Our goal is to achieve freedom and justice and to find jobs for young people. Civilian rule and democracy are the future of Sudan.”