Trio used forged press cards to carry out surveillance, police claim
David Brown, Fiona Hamilton, and Shayma Bakht
August 16, 2023
An alleged Russian spy ring whose agents are said to have posed as journalists to carry out surveillance on targets in London and Europe has been broken up by the Metropolitan Police.
Three Bulgarian citizens, who have lived in Britain for years and worked in a variety of jobs, have been accused of spying for the hostile state. They were among five people arrested under the Official Secrets Act in February after raids on homes in London and Great Yarmouth. MI5 is understood to have passed intelligence to the Met.
Orlin Roussev, 45, Bizer Dzhambazov, 41, and Katrin Ivanova, 31, have been charged with possessing 19 fake documents with “improper intention”. They include passports, identity cards and driving licences for the UK, Bulgaria, France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Slovenia, Greece and the Czech Republic.
They are accused of posing as journalists from American television companies. Scotland Yard officers are said to have found forged press cards and clothing for the Discovery and National Geographic channels, which were used to carry out surveillance operations. The alleged operations included targets in London, Germany and Montenegro.
Ken McCallum, the director-general of MI5, has been vocal about the espionage threat posed by Russia and other hostile states. In November he revealed that more than 100 suspected Kremlin spies had been blocked from Britain since the novichok attack on a double agent in Salisbury in 2018. In a reference to the invasion of Ukraine, McCallum said countries were straining to resist “overt aggression” from Russia.
The recent Berlin spy case underlined the threat. In February David Smith, a security officer at the British embassy, was jailed for 13 years after admitting spying for Russia because he supported President Putin’s war in Ukraine. The case raised concerns about security vetting because the former RAF serviceman was able to spy for at least three years despite publicly backing Putin.
The Met’s counter-terrorism unit has dedicated more officers to investigating threats from hostile states and espionage. A Scotland Yard spokesman said: “On February 8 officers from the Met’s Specialist Operations arrested five people on suspicion of an offence under the Official Secrets Act 1911.”
The forgery operation was allegedly run by Roussev, who lives in a guesthouse in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Equipment to produce false documents was allegedly discovered in his room. Roussev’s LinkedIn profile says he owned a business involved in signals intelligence,
which involves intercepting communications or electronic signals. He was once an adviser to the Bulgarian ministry of energy when it was led by Petar Dimitrov, a pro-Kremlin Bulgarian Socialist Party member. Roussev moved to the UK in 2009 and spent three years working in financial services. Neighbours said yesterday they had not seen anyone going in or out of the hotel for months.
Dzhambazov and his girlfriend, Ivanova, are believed to have moved to the UK a decade ago and lived in a flat in Harrow, northwest London. Ivanova describes herself on LinkedIn as a laboratory assistant for a private health business while Dzhambazov is described as a hospital driver. The couple ran a community organisation providing services for Bulgarians. They also helped facilitate voting in Bulgarian elections by expats.
Neighbours said they appeared normal and used to bring them cakes. Sonal Thakrar, the flat’s owner, told Mail Online that they always paid their rent on time. She said: “We were told they were Polish, but I never spoke to them.”
All three defendants are due to go on trial at the Old Bailey in London in January. Two other people — a 31-year-old man from west London and a 29-year-old woman from north London — have been arrested but not charged. The Bulgarian embassy in London said it had not been informed of the arrests by the British authorities. The rundown seaside guesthouse seemed an unlikely alleged headquarters of a Russian spy ring until it was raided by counter-terrorism police in a secret operation.
Inside a room at the three-star Haydee Hotel near the Britannia Pier in Great Yarmouth, officers allegedly uncovered equipment used to make false identification documents including passports and driving licences.
The operation is alleged to have been run by Orlin Roussev, 45, a Bulgarian signals intelligence expert who includes “007” in one of his email addresses.
Neighbours said yesterday they had not seen anyone coming in or out of the hotel for months, and did not believe it had been open for business since at least last year.
The Haydee is owned by Irina Paravanova, 47, a Bulgarian businesswoman who bought it for £220,000 in September 2021. There is no suggestion that Paravanova is involved in the alleged spy ring.
Companies House records show the hotel is also the registered office of her business, FTTH Technologies. The nature of business is described as “other human health activities”. An old website listing that gives the company’s previous registered address in Mayfair, central London, states that it is a “provider of IT precision services for medicine, robotics and the IT industry”.
Moira Scott, the bar manager at the family-owned Prom Hotel opposite the Haydee, said she could recall security personnel turning up there in February. “There was a big crime scene tent outside the door of the Haydee and there were a load of plain police vans with blacked-out windows,” she said. “My first reaction was that someone had been murdered. There was a lot of men dressed in black clothes with their faces covered, coming and going. They had balaclavas on
as if they didn’t want anyone to recognise them, which I thought was a bit weird. I couldn’t see their faces.”
Wooden blinds remained drawn across the front downstairs windows and curtains were closed on the upper two storeys yesterday. Dead plants were visible in two hanging baskets and two wall-mounted plant holders, with two rusting metal tables and empty chairs at the front.
Aman Khanna, general manager of the nearby Waverley Hotel, said: “Every second house in the road here is a guesthouse. The Haydee Hotel has been there for a long time but I have not really seen guests going in or out very much.”
Police also raided a flat in a smart block in Harrow Weald, northwest London. Officers allegedly found fake passports and other identification documents in a safe, a wardrobe and drawers in the one-bedroom property.
The raid led to the arrest of Bizer Dzhambazov, 41, and his girlfriend, Katrin Ivanova, 31, who had lived at the property for five years. The couple are well known among London’s Bulgarians as they ran a community organisation helping migrants to familiarise themselves with British life.
The flat’s owner, Sonal Thakrar, told Mail Online that when she visited the property after the police search she found dozens of bottles of whisky and gin. “I know people like to have a drink, but I have never seen so many bottles of alcohol around the place,” she said. “We were told they were a Polish couple, but I never spoke to them or went to the flat while they were there.”
Dzhambazov previously rented a spacious semi-detached house a couple of miles away in Rayners Lane. Neighbours said he used the name “Max” and was a “quiet, friendly neighbour who minded his own business” during the few years he lived there. When the couple left that property in about 2017, Dzhambazov told his neighbours that he was “moving down the road to save money”. He urged them to visit their new home to “have a tea”.
Shayma Bakht is a news reporter at The Times. She has led undercover investigations from the Middle East and the UK, uncovering the kingdom-wide trafficking of maids from Riyadh, an underground baby trade in Afghanistan and the mass abduction of girls in Tanzania’s gold mining towns. She has secured interviews with Imran Khan and Saudi royalty, and her investigation into the UK’s Homes for Ukraine scheme resulted in the government receiving a stark public warning from the UNHCR. She was named young journalist of the year at the 2023 Press Awards and MHP’s Gold Winner for international affairs as well as one of its 30ToWatch journalists.