PATTAYA, Thailand (AP) — A Russian sex guru and his followers, one of whom claims to have evidence of Moscow's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, were acquitted Tuesday of violating labor laws in Thailand but still face other charges that could land them in prison for more than 10 years.
Alexander Kirillov and follower Anastasia Vashukevich, a model and escort, told reporters they placed the blame for their continued detention on U.S. officials, to whom they previously appealed for help and political asylum.
Vashukevich's earlier revelation of an alleged affair with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin, fueled opposition allegations in Russia of official corruption and enraged the Kremlin.
Vashukevich claims to have audio recordings of Deripaska that provide evidence of Russian meddling in the U.S. polls.
Deripaska has been linked to Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign manager who has been indicted on money laundering charges in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
The group was arrested Feb. 25 in a hotel meeting room in Pattaya, a Thai seaside resort city popular with Russian visitors. The sex lessons they hosted were attended by about 40 Russian tourists. Some participants wore T-shirts saying "Sex animator" in English with an arrow pointing to the wearer's crotch.
Kirillov and Vashukevich, with half a dozen other people, were taken Tuesday to a Pattaya court from the immigration detention center in Bangkok where they are being held.
Unashamed sexual activity is business as usual for Pattaya, which is notorious for its sordid nightlife, but the allegations by Vashukevich, who uses the name Nastya Rybka on her racy social media postings, have drawn worldwide attention.
Charges of working without proper permits were dropped Tuesday due to technicalities involving implementation of new regulations for work permits for foreigners, said a lawyer who represented the defendants and was present at their hearing. He spoke to reporters on condition that he not be named.
Foreigners found working without a work permit can face fines of up to 100,000 baht ($3,200) and imprisonment for up to five years.
Police last week added additional charges against them of soliciting to provide sexual services, which carries a maximum prison term of 10 years, and conspiracy to solicit, which is punishable by up to seven years.
It was unclear when they will be tried on the new charges.
Kirillov, also known as Alex Lesley, and Vashukevich managed to smuggle out a letter soon after they were arrested which was delivered by a friend to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, asking for asylum and saying they had important information about the U.S. election.
They also said they feared for their personal safety, especially if deported to Russia. Vashukevich repeated her claims in comments to reporters before Thai authorities cut off media access to her.
Speaking to the media Tuesday after they were acquitted, they took a more conciliatory tone toward Russia, and a more suspicious one toward U.S. authorities.
On arrival at the court, when reporters asked Kirillov what he wished to tell the U.S., he responded in English: "Help us. Help us any way because we don't know what is happening."
But after his acquittal, he told them he thought that U.S. officials, including the FBI, may have been trying to engineer the legal proceedings to keep them in Thai detention for three or four months. In broken English, he appeared to suggest the Americans wanted to find the alleged evidence themselves rather than get it by dealing with them.
"This information is much more interesting for the American side. I think Russia is not involved so much as we thought about this," he said.
He added that Vashukevich wrote a message for Deripaska to tell him hello and that she was waiting for him to "'come and do something' because this is everything about his case and she don't want to participate in some political situation. This is love story."
Vashukevich, speaking in Russian, voiced similar sentiments.
"I want to say this to Oleg Deripaska and say that we were wrong, it's not the Russian government who are trying to put us in jail, it's the Americans."
At the same time, she insisted that the recordings she claims to have are still safe. "They took my phone and laptop away from me, because I have all of it on my phone and laptop. But don't worry, many people have it stored safely. And if I want for it to be revealed it will be."
Vashukevich, who carries a passport from Belarus, became the center of a public scandal in early February when Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny published an investigation drawing on her social media posts suggesting corrupt links between Deripaska and a top Kremlin official, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko.
The report featured photos from Deripaska's yacht in 2016, when Vashukevich claims she was having an affair with him and allegedly recorded him.