‘Urban scouts’ and accused spies chafe in legal limbo in Albania – News Block

Stunning images of urban decay, including overgrown Soviet-era bomb shelters and the crumbling remains of factories across Eastern Europe, have earned a Russian photographer hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers eager to follow her travels.

But these days, photographer Svetlana Timofeyeva, 34, can’t travel far to satisfy fans of her exploits. Her passport was confiscated by authorities in Albania, where she spent much of the past year in a women’s prison held on charges that have earned her another kind of fame: being a Russian spy.

She has denied those accusations, saying that geopolitical tensions stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made her and her compatriots suspect in the eyes of many Europeans, including those who, like her, have opposed the war.

“People don’t think of Russians as victims of this government, but we are,” he said in a recent interview at a cafe in Tirana, the capital. “Everyone is watching you. Everyone looks at you suspiciously.”

Ms Timofeyeva and two other fellow “urban explorers”, Mikhail Zorin, a Russian student, and Fedir Alpatov, a Ukrainian, were arrested last August on suspicion of espionage after being caught in an abandoned arms factory in a remote part of the country. from Albania.

They say they were there to explore the plant and take pictures. They deny that they were spying.

But Zorin also acknowledged that he pepper-sprayed factory guards after they approached him, later saying during police questioning that he was a Russian agent. That admission, Zorin said in an interview, was forced.

The three urban explorers were held in jail for nine months until a court ordered their release on May 25, though Zorin was placed under house arrest. They are now prohibited from leaving Albania until an indictment is filed or the charges are dropped.

That has landed them in a strange life of limbo in Tirana, where they share a two-bedroom apartment to save money, depending on the generosity of family and friends to stay afloat financially.

Without her equipment, which was confiscated by the authorities, Ms Timofeyeva says she cannot earn money as before, making videos and photos for weddings and corporate events.

So he spends his days traveling around Albania with Alpatov, who declined to be interviewed for this article, in his orange Chevy Camaro, which he brought with him from Italy, where he lives, according to Timofeyeva. Sometimes they receive visitors from abroad.

The situation is stranger for Zorin, 24, who had been studying in Prague before heading off on a planned cycling trip to Greece, with Albania as a pit stop to meet up with Timofeyeva and Alpatov. Confined to the apartment, he spends much of his time chatting with friends online.

“It’s quite similar to turning into a cat,” he said of his existence, wearing a cat T-shirt at a reporter’s recent visit to the apartment. “You depend on people bringing you food.”

Mr. Zorin’s dismantled bicycle is kept in the apartment, and Ms. Timofeyeva pointed to it wryly as proof of his innocence. (“Even Russian intelligence has more money to provide a car,” she said.)

According to Mr. Zorin, the group had chosen the abandoned arms factory because it looked dilapidated, not knowing that it was a military installation.

Separated from the others after they entered the plant, Zorin said two men approached him and he didn’t realize they were guards. When they grabbed him, he said, he panicked and used the pepper spray, which he had brought along for emergencies on his solo bike trip, on them.

During a police questioning, which Zorin said lasted until early morning the next day, the officers accused him of being a Russian spy and did not believe he was just an urban scout. They threatened and beat him, he said, applying pressure to “weak spots.”

Fearing something worse would happen to him, he made up a story: that the Russian intelligence agency had asked him to spy on Albania and told him that his family in Russia would face consequences if he didn’t.

“I understand that this was very silly,” Zorin said.

But at the time, isolated and unable to contact family or friends, he believed that coming out as a spy was the best option, he said.

Those accusations were “totally false”, said Gentian Mullaj, a spokesman for the Albanian police, adding that the police had acted “in full compliance” in accordance with standard working procedures and the “fundamental rights of citizens”.

The prosecutor, Kreshnik Ajazi, said when asked for comment by The New York Times that it was the first time he had heard Zorin’s claims and that suggestions that someone had been targeted for being Russian were “absurd.”

Mr. Ajazi said that the three defendants had been given the legal right to contact their relatives when they were arrested, something that Ms. Timofeyeva denies, and that a lawyer and a translator were present during the questioning.

He said that Mr. Zorin’s statement was kept confidential and that he was present during the questioning of the three detainees on August 21, one day after their arrest. “I can assure you that there was no torture or violence of any kind,” Ajazi said. He was not present when the police first questioned Mr. Zorin after his arrest.

Mr Ajazi said the factory guards had been in uniform and it would have been “quite clear” to Mr Zorin that they were civil servants. He said, without elaborating, that Zorin’s statement was not the only evidence prosecutors had, and that the group had visited other military sites in Albania.

Ms Timofeyeva said the group had visited other sites in Albania, including a former military site, but they had never had any problems.

Electronic devices seized from the group were still being examined, Ajazi said. He hoped the case would be “closed before” the August 2024 deadline for him to file an indictment.

As she bides her time in Tirana, Ms Timofeyeva is also considering a request Moscow made for her extradition in connection with a case of trespassing at a Russian underground military site in 2018. Both she and Mr Zorin have been outspoken about her opposition to President Vladimir V. Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, and believes the extradition request could be an attempt to punish her for her outspokenness.

So far, that prospect seems unlikely. An Albanian court rejected Russia’s extradition request on human rights grounds.

Zorin, who is half Ukrainian, said the invasion of Ukraine was like “attacking our own brothers.” Russia has not requested his extradition from Albania, and Mr. Zorin said that even if Albania released him, he would not return home for fear of being drafted to fight in Ukraine.

Ms Timofeyeva, who left Moscow for Georgia a month after the war began in February 2022, has shared posts with her nearly 250,000 followers on Instagram, where she goes by Lana Sator, calling Putin a “crazy grandpa.” “and asking for an end. to the conflict

She said she separated from her husband, who worked as a photographer for the Wagner Group, the private army that had been fighting on Russia’s behalf in Ukraine until it mutinied this month, because he supported the war.

While living in Moscow, Ms Timofeyeva said, she worked with Russia’s Ministry of Culture to boost local tourism, not the country’s intelligence agency.

Now, he has applied for political asylum in Albania and said he had no plans to return in the near future. “The jail in Russia is worse than here in Albania,” she said.

He spent the months in detention, he said, reading, learning Albanian and drawing pictures of the mountains near the prison and other subjects. He said that he hoped to explore Albania and see more of its attractions.

But, he asked, “Will it be espionage if we take a tourist boat to a tourist island?”

Fatjona Mejdini contributed reporting from Tirana.

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