On 15th August, three Bulgarians, Bizer Dzhambazov, 41, Katrin Ivanova, 31, and Orlin Roussev, 45, were remanded in custody on a charge of possession of forged documentation. The documentation included forged passports for a number of countries, press cards and clothing marked for the Discovery and National Geographic channels. It was alleged by the prosecution that they have been spying for Russia. Two other people arrested at the same time were bailed.
They had all been arrested in February following “a long-running counter-espionage operation” and held in custody since then while the investigation continued. Because two of the three lived in a rented flat about a mile from an RAF base, the press promptly dubbed them “the Northolt spy ring.” They had all lived in the UK for about ten years and were very active in the Bulgarian community. Roussev worked for a company in signals intelligence and had told neighbours he worked for Interpol, it was claimed. Dzhambazov and Ivanova lived together. He worked as a driver for hospitals, she worked as a lab assistant.
Although trumpeted by the press as a major espionage operation, several aspects of the case cast doubt on that interpretation:
1) After “a long-running counter-espionage operation”, arrest, searches of their premises and then a further six months of investigation, the only charge against three of the five was possession of forged documents. This will be very disappointing for the investigation team. Criminals often have forged passports as well as spies. If they have been acting as spies for the past ten years there should be far more evidence than this and the charges should be more serious. It is not that the investigators are holding anything back: under UK law, they must charge as soon as they have evidence of offences and they must disclose their evidence (including unused material) to the prosecution. Why is there so little evidence of espionage?
2) They have been active amongst the Bulgarian community and if they are spies they will have been looking for contacts. Why has there been no evidence about this? People will have been interviewed and if these spies were asking suspicious questions there should be accounts of that.
3) Although clothing for TV channels and forged press cards have been found, there is no suggestion that these have ever been used.
4) They were arrested in February but there is no offence related to that time. If they were the subjects of “a long-running operation” why was the trap sprung early?
5) What sort of secrets were they spying on? No equipment for collecting intelligence was found at their address (cameras, data encryption programmes, notes, maps, etc) and they appear to have had no contacts with access to secrets such as government officials, scientists, commercial companies, etc.
6) After six months of investigation two of the “spy ring” were released on bail. This shows how poor the evidence was: you simply do not allow suspected spies out on bail.
7) Why so many forged passports? A spy might need one or two but not a dozen. It was not specified if the passports were in their names (or aliases) but if they were blank then it suggests that they were holding them as part of a larger operation. There was no suggestion of this in any of the press briefings.
8) It is highly unlikely that this arrest and charge process is part of some sort of cunning trap: the moment that a member of a network is arrested or otherwise compromised it is standard operational procedure for all intelligence services that the network should be closed down and all members removed to a place of safety if possible. So, making an early arrest makes no sense.
9) Finally, where is MI5 in all this? They would have been responsible for any “long-running counter-espionage operation” yet they were not mentioned in any of the briefings, only the police (who have to be involved as they must make the arrests). It looks as though MI5 is trying to disassociate itself from some sort of operational foul up.
The trial is expected to take place in January 2024.