Andrzej Izdebski, a notorious arms dealer involved in a scandal-tainted procurement of medical ventilators in Poland, died unexpectedly in Tirana, aged 71. Oddities surrounding the death sparked speculation it had been staged.
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This article was originally published on July 29 on the Balkan Insight website.

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Andrzej Izdebski didn’t respond to repeated knocking on his apartment door in Tirana on June 20 around noon. Outside the rented apartment, on the second floor in one of the blocks in Albania’s capital of Tirana, Ylli Zyla, a high-ranking officer of Albania’s armed forces and a former Military Intelligence chief, was waiting impatiently.

Along with the owner of the apartment, Zyla tried in vain to use a reserve key to open the door, but it was locked from the inside with the key left in. Concerned about his Polish friend, Zyla called the police and the fire brigade. Minutes later, the administrator of the building, Tomorr Baruti, and one of the firefighters climbed onto the balcony of the apartment to gain access.

"We needed just to remove the anti-mosquito net," Baruti said. "I entered on one side, the firefighter from the other," he added.

Baruti and the firefighter found Izdebski on his bed, lifeless. "There was some blood on the mattress," he remembers.m

Tomorr Baruti
Tomorr Baruti  Fot. Michał Kokot/Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Police issued a short statement about the death on the same day. Mistakenly, the Polish man’s initials were reporter as A.H., and his age as 73.

However, a month later his death was being covered by the media back in Poland, where mistakes in the police notice and the shady past of the victim as an arms dealer backlisted by the United Nations added fuel to doubts about the circumstances surrounding his death.

Furthermore, the businessman was under investigation in his home country for some 8 million euros in unpaid debts for a contract with the Polish government to supply the country’s hospitals with ventilators – much-needed equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many tabloids floated the idea that his death had been staged so he could escape the situation he found himself in.

However, in Tirana, police and prosecutors insist his death was due to natural causes. "We believe he died from heart failure," said Arens Çela, head of the Tirana’s prosecutor’s office, adding that such cases are routine for his office, with some 20 similar cases each month. Çela emphasised that a final analysis from the country Forensic Services is expected to close the case.

Contacted by phone, Ylli Zyla, a colonel, refused to comment on the death and his relationship with Izdebski. "I am military personnel, I must not speak," he said.

Who was Izdebski?

The name Andrzej Izdebski, who during the Communist era in Poland had worked for the secret police, was not entirely unknown in Albania.

In 2011, Izdebski registered two businesses in Albania – Unimesko, a company with the stated purpose of engaging in arms deals, and another one named Wind Sun Water Initiative, whose target business was energy. His partner in that business was Liljana Zyla, wife of Ylli Zyla. The two companies had the same address: Matriks apartment blocks, near Tirana’s Court.

The company in which the partner was Liljana Zyla was the subject of a wave of allegations in the media and from the Socialist Party, then in opposition. The Socialists accused Ylli Zyla, then-head of the SHIU military intelligence agency, and Albania’s Ministry of Defence of engaging in illegal arms and munitions trading. Zyla resigned from his job, but claimed the allegations against him were "immoral and baseless attacks".

Two years later, in 2014 when the Socialists took power, the Defence Ministry fired Zyla from his position at the time as head of the country’s military police and filed charges against him for illegally eavesdropping on the Socialist Party. The charges didn’t reach court, while Zyla managed to earn back his uniform by suing the Defence Ministry in an administrative court and winning. Since 2021, he has had the command of the Training Centre near the Logistics Command of Albania Armed Forces.

However, while the troubles of Zyla might have ended, Izdebski faced other issues back in Poland after winning a 44.5-million-euro contact to supply the country’s Health Ministry with medical equipment in 2020.

Under the contract, Izdebski was obliged to supply by June 30, 2020 some 920 respirators. With the world gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, the price paid was three-times above the normal rate, justified by the argument the respirators were vital and needed promptly. However, as many countries were fighting over scarce supplies needed to treat COVID-19 patients, Izdebski, who has been accused of, among other things, violating an arms embargo by supplying Croatia during the Balkan Wars of the early 1990s, failed to fulfil his obligations on time.

When Izdebski managed to procure some of the equipment, the Polish Health Ministry refused to accept them, leaving them in storage at Warsaw Airport. This left the 71-year-old businessman at least 8 million euros in debt to the government. The final bill could be even higher after investigations were opened on suspicions that the respirators were useless and that repairs would be too costly.

Under investigation in his own country, Izdebski chose to live in Tirana. According to the prosecutor’s office of Lublin city, the birthplace of Izdebski, he left Poland on December 9, 2020.

"Andrzej I. wasn’t summoned to the prosecutor’s office to be charged because it was known that the suspect was not present in his house," explained Karol Blajerski, spokesperson for the Regional Prosector’s Office of Lublin.

Izdebski was put on the country’s wanted list in March 2022 following accusations by Polish MPs that he had failed to pay VAT on the respirators he had sold to the Health Ministry.

However, during that time Izdebski was in Tirana, trying to build new businesses with his old friends.

Apartamentowiec przylegający do budynku przy bulwarze Bajrama Curriego, w którym mieszkał Andrzej Izdebski.
Apartamentowiec przylegający do budynku przy bulwarze Bajrama Curriego, w którym mieszkał Andrzej Izdebski.  Fot. Michał Kokot/Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Business in Tirana

Testimonies obtained by BIRN and Wyborcza Gazeta show that Izdebski came to Albania at the end of 2021 and contacted Ylli Zyla. In January, at the behest of Zyla, he met with Syrja Myftari, to whom they both proposed should become administrator of Izdebski’s new company. The stated purpose of the company was trade in military materiel, guns, mining and other fields.

Myftari, a former military aircraft engineer and former employee of SHIU, said in an interview in a coffee shop in Tirana that he had first met Izdebski through "a close friend from school". He refused to reveal his name "out of respect for their friendship".

"You said it," he said half laughing when asked directly if that friend was Zyla. By the end of January this year, a few weeks after meeting for the first time, Myftari and Izdebski registered a company called Trade Invest & More sh.p.k.

Myftari, who works in a winery, was appointed administrator of the new company with a salary of 80,000 leks (685 euros) per month. Izdebski however failed to pay him.

"Andrej told me we would trade respirators and military equipment. I told him I disagreed about the guns," Myftari recalled.

Myftari said he met Izdebski only four times. At all of them, they were joined by Zyla, who acted as interpreter. Just once, in March, did Myftari and Izdebski meet alone. At that time, they went to the immigration police office in Tirana to obtain a permit for him to stay in the country.

Myftari explained that the arms dealer had overstayed his residency, so he needed to travel to Montenegro for a few days before being allowed to re-enter Albania.

Myftari added that, initially, he had no idea about Izdebski’s past. He even claimed that for some two months after the registration of the company, he didn’t even know his new business partner’s surname. But then he started to search the internet.

"When I saw what was written about him in Poland, I called my friend," Myftari said, adding that this friend assured him "everything was fine".

"He told me that the issues were in Poland, while for us here there was no reason to be concerned," the 51-year-old recalled.

Problems, however, soon arose. Myftari said they were unable to open a bank account, as many banks simply refused. "I understood that this had to do with [Izdebski’s] past," Myftari said.

Eventually, the branch of a Hungarian bank in Tirana agreed to open the account, but only on the condition that the field of the operations of the company would be narrowed. Izdebski then agreed to state that the purpose was to deal in respirators.

Yet the bank account stood empty, as Izdebski didn’t make a deposit. When the company was notified that bills had to be paid for social insurance and municipal taxes, Myftari, who already had a loan out in his own name, became concerned and called Zyla.

"He assured me that the issues were temporary due to the blocking of Andrzej’s bank accounts in Poland," Myftari said.

Myftari underscored he remained hopeful the business would work. He even made a gift to Izdebski of a bottle of wine from the winery where he worked. Izdebski expressed an interest in trading that wine, so Myftari acted as mediator to get Izdebski a good offer from his employer.

Despite the offer from the wine bar being attractive, Izdebski didn’t reply. Myftari said this made him look bad at his main job that helps feed his family, so from that moment on he wanted to leave the company. His stress increased when social insurance contributions fell due and he pressured Izdebski to pay them.

On May 17, the account of the company was credited with some 700,000 leks (about 6,000 euros). A part of that, 300,000 leks, was withdrawn in cash by Izdebski, the rest was used to pay the taxes.

By that time, Myftari had become convinced the business had no future. "Did I regret becoming involved in this matter?! Yes, I feel like a fool," he said.

Syrja Myftari
Syrja Myftari  Fot. Michał Kokot/Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Unexpected death

The testimonies and conclusions from the investigation by the Tirana’s prosecutor’s office shown to BIRN and Wyborcza Gazeta indicate that the 71-year-old Pole started feeling poorly around lunchtime on the Saturday of June 18.

Myftari said he learned this "from his friend" on that day when they went out for lunch in the village of Shengjergj, some 50 kilometres east of Tirana. After lunch, while the others went for a walk, Izdebski told them he would stay behind because he didn’t feel well.

Myftari said that Zyla offered to accompany him to the hospital, but he refused.

Tomorr Baruti, the administrator of the building where Izdebski lived, also recounted to BIRN how Zyla told him on June 20, after Izdebski had been found dead, that he should have insisted on accompanying him to the hospital.

"He felt bad for not insisting enough," Baruti said.

Zyla had attempted first to call him. Baruti said that Izdebski didn’t respond to the phone calls, so he went to check on him at the apartment.

When Izdebski didn’t respond to knocking on the door, Zyla called the police and the fire brigade, who found him dead inside. Naim Tota, the prosecutor investigating the case, said there were no signs of violence on his body. A police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity added that the fact the door was locked from the inside ruled out foul play.

Tota added that for the time being they have no reason to investigate the matter for anything other than death from natural causes. Arens Çela, director of the Tirana prosecutor’s office, said further investigations could only be undertaken if new information points to a different cause of death.

Queered about Izdebski’s past, Tirana’s prosecutors claimed they were unaware of it and that the Polish authorities had not contacted them regarding the investigation into his death. The only interested persons were family members who had taken his body from Tirana’s city morgue.

The authorities in Tirana are, however, awaiting the results of toxicological examinations from the Forensic Services to close the case.

Myftari, who feared that the sudden death of the businessman might cause trouble for him, was reassured when one of the doctors that he contacted told him the death was due to natural causes. He now would like to expunge his name from the company of the deceased arms dealer, but that, it seems, is not such an easy thing to do.

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