Russian blogger charged with spying in Albania asks for asylum

FILE PHOTO: Russians Mikahil Zorin and Svetlana Timofeeva attend a preliminary session for the cautionary sentence after being arrested for violating a military facility, in Elbasan

By Fatos Bytyci and Florion Goga

TIRANA (Reuters) - A Russian self-proclaimed blogger arrested last August in Albania on spying charges has applied for asylum in an attempt to escape extradition because she fears persecution in Moscow, her lawyer said on Monday.

Svetlana Timofeeva, 34, was arrested together with another Russian and a Ukrainian on charges of entering the former communist military factory of Gramsh, some 80 km (50 miles) from the Albanian capital Tirana.

Timofeeva has said the factory was abandoned and there was no sign suggesting any military facility and people and animals were moving in and out freely. She said the only reason she was visiting the area was her desire to film abandoned buildings from the Cold War era.

"She is seeking asylum because if she is extradited she will be persecuted by the Russian authorities," her lawyer Isuf Shehu said. "The Russian state prosecutor is on a blacklist from Western countries including our state also."

The request for asylum said Timofeeva has openly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion of Ukraine.

On Friday a court is expected to rule on whether to extradite Timofeeva or not.

In February the Albanian Ministry of Justice approved a request from Moscow to extradite Timofeeva where she faces similar charges.

Albania, as have most European countries, joined the European Union in putting sanctions on Russia for the invasion.

"The prosecution in Albania has no facts to incriminate and punish her on espionage charges ... she was only taking photos of old and destroyed buildings," Shehu said.

When Albania was under communist rule, the Gramsh plant produced Russian-designed AK 47 rifles.

The ministry's website says the plant now provides manufacturing services for the defence industry. In the past, it was also used to dismantle small arms and ammunition.

Known as Lana Sator, Timofeeva has more than 250,000 followers on her Instagram page where she has posted for years photos of abandoned buildings including forgotten, old and rusted military installments.

"Two countries, Albania and Russia, accuse Lana of espionage because she takes artistic photos of abandoned places. As ridiculous as it sounds this is a Kafkian reality for Lana," her Instagram account says. The account is maintained by Timofeeva's friends, it says.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci and Florion Goga; editing by Grant McCool)