MOSCOW — Within the 13 months for the reason that swashbuckling Russian sociologist was kidnapped by terrorists within the Libyan capital, he has been tortured, starved and tormented with mock beheading by sadistic Islamists.
By all of it, he stoutly rejected calls for that he confess to being a Russian spy.
That not less than is Russia’s big-screen version of a real-life drama that has made the sociologist, Maksim Shugalei, and his Russian interpreter gamers within the newest murky story of international intrigue unspooling amid the chaotic war in Libya.
The 2 males’s Libyan misadventure started in March final 12 months with what their Russian employer described as a “analysis mission,” which shortly landed them in a infamous jail on prices of visa violations and meddling in Libyan politics.
As a part of a marketing campaign to get the Russians freed, their employer, a shadowy non-public Russian basis, helped finance a feature-length film that premiered on Russian state tv final month.
The saga took an odd new twist final week with Russian and Arabic news reports that the 2 Russians had been taken from their cells close to the Tripoli airport and flown to Turkey, Russia’s rival for affect in Libya, for questioning by Turkey’s secret police.
Officers with Libya’s United Nations-backed authorities in Tripoli, which is holding the Russians, denied the studies.
“They haven’t been transferred to another place,” mentioned Ahmed bin Salem, a spokesman for the militia that controls the jail the place they’re held. Turkey had no remark.
Nonetheless, the studies underscored how the 2 Russians’ destiny had turn out to be entangled within the byzantine jockeying among the foreign powers driving Libya’s conflict, notably Turkey and Russia.
Extra broadly, the case is emblematic of Russia’s multifaceted and generally contradictory engagements within the oil-rich North African nation, the place a plethora of official and nominally non-public Russian army and political outfits have cast ties with rival Libyan forces, apparently hoping that one in every of them will emerge victorious.
Formally, Moscow acknowledges the Tripoli authorities whilst Russian mercenaries and warplanes have backed Khalifa Hifter, a militia commander whose 14-month marketing campaign to grab Tripoli was repulsed this month. On the similar time, Russian political operators and businessmen have reached out to different potential allies.
“The Russians wish to unfold their investments,” mentioned Frederic Wehrey, a Libya specialist on the Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace. “From the start, they may see that Hifter was not essentially a successful guess, so that they hedged.”
The hedge on this case was Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the second son of Libya’s deposed longtime dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and an avowed rival of each Mr. Hifter and the Tripoli authorities.
Mr. Shugalei, 54, and his interpreter, Samir Seifan, had been arrested in Might final 12 months after assembly secretly with Mr. el-Qaddafi, who has been indicted on struggle crimes prices by the Worldwide Legal Courtroom and is claimed to be hiding close to Zintan, a city 85 miles southwest of Tripoli.
The Russians’ journey was sponsored by the Foundation for National Values Protection, a company arrange in Moscow to “unfold the Russian ideology of goodness” and “to guard the nationwide pursuits of the Russian Federation.” (It additionally despatched a 3rd Russian, Alexander Prokofiev, however he fled Libya earlier than the opposite two had been arrested and is now again in Russia.)
Mr. Shugalei, along with any credentials he might have as a sociologist, is a veteran political operative. He briefly made information in Russia in 2002 when he ate paperwork to stop them from being handed over to a decide throughout a St. Petersburg election dispute.
Earlier than going to Libya, he was a part of a workforce of Russians accused of election meddling in Madagascar.
In Libya, his conferences with political figures drew scrutiny from Libyan intelligence, which had him and his interpreter arrested. Officers seized paperwork and laptops that, they mentioned, confirmed that Mr. Shugalei was plotting to meddle in Libyan elections and was coordinating with Mr. el-Qaddafi on a plan to get him again right into a place of energy.
Alexander Malkevich, the top of the inspiration that despatched Mr. Shugalei to Tripoli, denied the accusations, saying that they may not probably meddle in elections as a result of there had not been any.
Libya’s deliberate elections did collapse because of preventing, however they had been nonetheless below dialogue when the Russians landed in Tripoli.
Libya’s descent into chaos began in 2011 after a NATO bombing campaign led to Colonel el-Qaddafi’s ouster and killing. Preventing amongst rival Libyan factions shortly degenerated into an enormous proxy struggle pushed by worldwide powers looking for oil, enterprise prospects or strategic benefit.
Previously 9 months, Russia and Turkey have emerged as dominant powers in that contest, whereas america held again, formally backing the Tripoli authorities whereas President Trump appeared to favor Mr. Hifter.
Russian mercenaries employed by the Wagner Group, a personal firm that American officers have known as “an arm of the Russian state,” poured into Libya to again Mr. Hifter. Final month, the Pentagon accused the Kremlin of sending not less than 14 disguised warplanes to Libya.
Turkey intervened on the Tripoli authorities’s facet in January, blunting Mr. Hifter’s offensive and forcing his troops to retreat a whole lot of miles to the east.
However Russians aren’t restricted to 1 facet of the struggle. Russian businessmen have cultivated hyperlinks to factions within the western metropolis of Misurata, and the chief of the embattled Tripoli authorities, Fayez al-Sarraj, visited Russia in October to attend a gathering of African leaders hosted by Mr. Putin whilst Russian mercenaries pounded his capital.
Nonetheless others imagine that Colonel el-Qaddafi’s household might but stage a comeback — a prospect that seems to have motivated the outreach to his son by the now jailed Russian political operative.
Kirill Semenov, a Libya knowledgeable on the Russian Worldwide Affairs Council, mentioned Mr. Shugalei’s journey seemed to be a part of a push for affect by a St. Petersburg businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Mr. Prigozhin has been indicted by america over meddling within the 2016 American presidential election and has been tied by the U.S. to the Wagner Group.
Mr. Prigozhin has denied the American accusations.
“The Russian army has one place, the Kremlin has one other and Prigozhin’s constructions have their very own,” Mr. Semenov mentioned. These positions, he added, generally align with each other and generally conflict.
Known as “Putin’s cook,” Mr. Prigozhin owns a catering enterprise that has received giant contracts for the Russian army.
He’s believed to have sponsored Mr. Shugalei’s journey to Madagascar in 2018 and, in line with File, a London-based analysis group against the Kremlin, controls AFRIC, a Russian-financed analysis institute targeted on Africa. In March of final 12 months — the month of Mr. Shugalei’s departure for Libya — AFRIC offered documentation testifying to his standing as a “researcher and knowledgeable.”
Mr. Shugalei’s employer, Mr. Malkevich, mentioned his basis had no ties to Mr. Prigozhin. In 2018, america imposed sanctions on Mr. Malkevich over his position in a suspected affect operation directed by Mr. Prigozhin.
Mr. Malkevich mentioned he had despatched the three Russians to Libya to find how “below the flag of so-called democracy” Libya had “damaged into items so shortly” after the ouster of Colonel el-Qaddafi in 2011.
Within the film model of what occurred subsequent, Mr. Shugalei and his interpreter had been snatched by closely armed males in an operation coordinated by a sinister American named John.
A senior Libyan official mentioned the American character is likely to be a reference to a tip that the Libyans obtained from American intelligence that prompted them to maneuver in opposition to Mr. Shugalei.
Mr. Malkevich, who insists that the film “corresponds utterly with actuality,” mentioned it will assist the imprisoned Russians by elevating international consciousness of their plight.
A Libyan safety official in Tripoli contacted by phone scoffed on the movie mission and mentioned he couldn’t convey himself to complete watching it.
Mr. bin Salem, the spokesman for the militia that controls the jail the place the Russians are being held, denied that the Russians had been mistreated. The movie “doesn’t signify actuality,” he mentioned, forwarding pictures of neatly uniformed prisoners baking bread, making backyard furnishings and taking part in soccer.
Hanan Salah, a senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch, mentioned that the group had “documented constant allegations of in poor health therapy and inhumane circumstances” on the jail that elevate “critical considerations that anybody held there dangers abuse of some type.”
The Tripoli authorities initially hoped to make use of the prisoners as a bargaining chit. A leaked audiotape of a telephone dialog between a senior Libyan official and Mr. Shugalei’s employer prompt the Libyans would launch him if Mr. Putin switched sides within the struggle and backed the Tripoli authorities.
A 12 months later got here the film, “Shugalei,” which Libyan officers interpreted as a blunt negotiating tactic. An adviser to Mr. al-Serraj mentioned the story appeared to comprise messages and even threats.
Within the ultimate scene, he famous, the jail the place the 2 Russians are being held comes below assault, erupting in explosions and gunfire.
The torture-loving commander is killed. Mr. Shugalei grabs a rifle and heroically frees different prisoners, together with his interpreter.
The 2 males stride to freedom, in opposition to a backdrop of mayhem and the burning jail.
Andrew Higgins reported from Moscow, and Declan Walsh from Cairo. Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting from Berlin, Michael Schwirtz from New York, and Carlotta Gall from Istanbul.