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Uzbekistan: A Gangsta's Paradise?

Bakhtiyar Kudratillaev
Bakhtiyar Kudratillaev

Many things have changed in Uzbekistan in the two years since longtime President Islam Karimov died and Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power.

Many of those changes appear to have been positive. But there have also been some arguably negative developments, including the attitude of Uzbek authorities toward suspected or known underworld figures.

For the first time in about two decades, there has been a gathering in Uzbekistan of the "Vory v Zakone,” or “Thieves-in-Law,” according to RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik. The phrase, with roots in Soviet times, is a reference to leaders of prison gangs or groups, many of whom were, or became, bosses of organized criminal groups.

Sources told Ozodlik that Bakhtiyar Kudratillaev (aka Bakhti Tashkentsky) invited members of Kazakhstan's and Russia’s criminal underworlds to Uzbekistan to discuss control of organized-crime prison groups in that country.

During Karimov's administration, such groups were generally prevented from thriving locally and had largely disappeared by the end of the 1990s. Kudratillaev remained in Uzbekistan, although he faced charges over the years ranging from the sale of illegal narcotics to weapons possession. He was frequently jailed and was last released from prison in 2014, purportedly for health reasons.

Kudratillaev’s power was believed to have been declining late last year after several arrests of suspected crime figures with whom he was linked, but he apparently retains sufficient stature to have been able to attract alleged kingpins to Tashkent on August 20.

Gafur Rahimov
Gafur Rahimov

Then there is Gafur Rahimov, an alleged narcotics kingpin who the U.S. Treasury Department put on its sanction list in 2012, describing him as “one of the leaders of Uzbek organized crime with a specialty in the organized production of drugs in the countries of Central Asia.

Rahimov left Uzbekistan in 2010, reportedly living mainly in Dubai. He was charged in Uzbekistan with financial crimes and forgery of documents in February 2013. But just a few weeks after Mirziyoev came to power, in September 2016, Rahimov’s name was said to have been removed from Interpol’s wanted list.

In January, Rahimov was named interim president of the International Boxing Federation (IBF), just one month after the U.S Treasury department had frozen the assets of several Thieves-in-Law, including Rahimov. In July, Ozodlik reported that the charges in Uzbekistan of financial crimes and forgery of documents had been dropped. Rahimov does not appear to have returned to Uzbekistan.

Salim Abduvaliev
Salim Abduvaliev

And there is Salim Abduvaliev, who describes himself as a successful businessman. Some reports suggest “Salimbay” Abduvaliev owes much of his success to his reputed role as an underworld boss. Prior to Mirziyoev’s election as president on December 4, 2016, a widely circulated photograph appeared to show Abduvaliev wearing a T-shirt with Mirziyoev’s picture on it and the words “My President” written below.

Among the pledges that Mirziyoev has made since coming to power is one to clean up corruption. But the names of infamous figures linked to criminal activities are appearing more frequently since Mirziyoev became president than they did under Karimov.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.