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How Two Russians Got Caught Up in Libya’s War, Now an Action Movie

MOSCOW — In the 13 months since the swashbuckling Russian sociologist was kidnapped by terrorists in the Libyan capital, he has been tortured, starved and tormented with mock beheading by sadistic Islamists.

Through it all, he stoutly rejected demands that he confess to being a Russian spy.

That at least is Russia’s big-screen version of a real-life drama that has made the sociologist, Maksim Shugalei, and his Russian interpreter players in the latest murky tale of foreign intrigue unspooling amid the chaotic war in Libya.

The two men’s Libyan misadventure began in March last year with what their Russian employer described as a “research project,” which quickly landed them in a notorious jail on charges of visa violations and meddling in Libyan politics.

As part of a campaign to get the Russians freed, their employer, a shadowy private Russian foundation, helped finance a feature-length movie that premiered on Russian state television last month.

The saga took a strange new twist last week with Russian and Arabic news reports that the two Russians had been taken from their cells near the Tripoli airport and flown to Turkey, Russia’s rival for influence in Libya, for questioning by Turkey’s secret police.

Officials with Libya’s United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, which is holding the Russians, denied the reports.

“They have not been transferred to any other place,” said Ahmed bin Salem, a spokesman for the militia that controls the jail where they are held. Turkey had no comment.

Still, the reports underscored how the two Russians’ fate had become entangled in the byzantine jockeying among the foreign powers driving Libya’s conflict, notably Turkey and Russia.

More broadly, the case is emblematic of Russia’s multifaceted and sometimes contradictory engagements in the oil-rich North African country, where a plethora of official and nominally private Russian military and political outfits have forged ties with rival Libyan forces, apparently hoping that one of them will emerge victorious.

Officially, Moscow recognizes the Tripoli government even as Russian mercenaries and warplanes have backed Khalifa Hifter, a militia commander whose 14-month campaign to seize Tripoli was repulsed this month. At the same time, Russian political operators and businessmen have reached out to other potential allies.

“The Russians like to spread their investments,” said Frederic Wehrey, a Libya specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “From the beginning, they could see that Hifter was not necessarily a winning bet, so they hedged.”

The hedge in 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 both Mr. Hifter and the Tripoli government.

Mr. Shugalei, 54, and his interpreter, Samir Seifan, were arrested in May last year after meeting secretly with Mr. el-Qaddafi, who has been indicted on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court and is said to be hiding near Zintan, a town 85 miles southwest of Tripoli.

The Russians’ trip was sponsored by the Foundation for National Values Protection, an organization set up in Moscow to “spread the Russian ideology of goodness” and “to protect the national interests of the Russian Federation.” (It also sent a third Russian, Alexander Prokofiev, but he fled Libya before the other two were arrested and is now back in Russia.)

Mr. Shugalei, in addition to any credentials he may have as a sociologist, is a veteran political operative. He briefly made news in Russia in 2002 when he ate documents to prevent them from being handed over to a judge during a St. Petersburg election dispute.

Before going to Libya, he was part of a team of Russians accused of election meddling in Madagascar.

In Libya, his meetings with political figures drew scrutiny from Libyan intelligence, which had him and his interpreter arrested. Officials seized documents and laptops that, they said, showed that Mr. Shugalei was plotting to meddle in Libyan elections and was coordinating with Mr. el-Qaddafi on a plan to get him back into a position of power.

Alexander Malkevich, the head of the foundation that sent Mr. Shugalei to Tripoli, denied the accusations, saying that they could not possibly meddle in elections because there had not been any.

Libya’s planned elections did collapse as a result of fighting, but they were still under discussion when the Russians landed in Tripoli.

Libya’s descent into chaos started in 2011 after a NATO bombing campaign led to Colonel el-Qaddafi’s ouster and killing. Fighting among rival Libyan factions quickly degenerated into a vast proxy war driven by international powers seeking oil, business prospects or strategic advantage.

In the past nine months, Russia and Turkey have emerged as dominant powers in that contest, while the United States held back, officially backing the Tripoli government while President Trump appeared to favor Mr. Hifter.

Russian mercenaries employed by the Wagner Group, a private company that American officials have called “an arm of the Russian state,” poured into Libya to back Mr. Hifter. Last month, the Pentagon accused the Kremlin of sending at least 14 disguised warplanes to Libya.

Turkey intervened on the Tripoli government’s side in January, blunting Mr. Hifter’s offensive and forcing his troops to retreat hundreds of miles to the east.

But Russians are not limited to one side of the war. Russian businessmen have cultivated links to factions in the western city of Misurata, and the leader of the embattled Tripoli government, Fayez al-Sarraj, visited Russia in October to attend a meeting of African leaders hosted by Mr. Putin even as Russian mercenaries pounded his capital.

Still others believe that Colonel el-Qaddafi’s family could yet stage a comeback — a prospect that appears to have motivated the outreach to his son by the now jailed Russian political operative.

Kirill Semenov, a Libya expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, said Mr. Shugalei’s trip appeared to be part of a push for influence by a St. Petersburg businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Mr. Prigozhin has been indicted by the United States over meddling in 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 military has one position, the Kremlin has another and Prigozhin’s structures have their own,” Mr. Semenov said. These positions, he added, sometimes align with one another and sometimes clash.

Known as “Putin’s cook,” Mr. Prigozhin owns a catering business that has won large contracts for the Russian military.

He is believed to have sponsored Mr. Shugalei’s trip to Madagascar in 2018 and, according to Dossier, a London-based research group opposed to the Kremlin, controls AFRIC, a Russian-financed research institute focused on Africa. In March of last year — the month of Mr. Shugalei’s departure for Libya — AFRIC provided documentation attesting to his status as a “researcher and expert.”

Mr. Shugalei’s employer, Mr. Malkevich, said his foundation had no ties to Mr. Prigozhin. In 2018, the United States imposed sanctions on Mr. Malkevich over his role in a suspected influence operation directed by Mr. Prigozhin.

Mr. Malkevich said he had sent the three Russians to Libya to discover how “under the flag of so-called democracy” Libya had “broken into pieces so quickly” after the ouster of Colonel el-Qaddafi in 2011.

In the movie version of what happened next, Mr. Shugalei and his interpreter were snatched by heavily armed men in an operation coordinated by a sinister American named John.

A senior Libyan official said the American character might be a reference to a tip that the Libyans received from American intelligence that prompted them to move against Mr. Shugalei.

Mr. Malkevich, who insists that the movie “corresponds completely with reality,” said it would help the imprisoned Russians by raising global awareness of their plight.

A Libyan security official in Tripoli contacted by telephone scoffed at the film project and said he could not bring himself to finish watching it.

Mr. bin Salem, the spokesman for the militia that controls the jail where the Russians are being held, denied that the Russians had been mistreated. The film “does not represent reality,” he said, forwarding photos of neatly uniformed prisoners baking bread, making garden furniture and playing soccer.

Hanan Salah, a senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that the organization had “documented consistent allegations of ill treatment and inhumane conditions” at the jail that raise “serious concerns that anyone held there risks abuse of some sort.”

The Tripoli government initially hoped to use the prisoners as a bargaining chit. A leaked audiotape of a phone conversation between a senior Libyan official and Mr. Shugalei’s employer suggested the Libyans would release him if Mr. Putin switched sides in the war and backed the Tripoli government.

A year later came the movie, “Shugalei,” which Libyan officials interpreted as a blunt negotiating tactic. An adviser to Mr. al-Serraj said the story appeared to contain messages and even threats.

In the final scene, he noted, the prison where the two Russians are being held comes under attack, erupting in explosions and gunfire.

The torture-loving commander is killed. Mr. Shugalei grabs a rifle and heroically frees other prisoners, including his interpreter.

The two men stride to freedom, against a backdrop of mayhem and the burning prison.

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.

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