MOSCOW -- He made his name fighting the notorious Kazan mafia. But now his name is synonymous with police torture.
Asgat Safarov, the 50-year-old interior minister of Russia's republic of Tatarstan, is the man in the epicenter of a high-profile abuse case that mushroomed into a national scandal after a 52-year-old man died in police custody.
In the two weeks since Sergei Nazarov died after allegedly being raped with a champagne bottle by Kazan police, the spotlight on Safarov has only become brighter as more residents of the Tatar capital have come forward with tales of police abuse.
The scrutiny intensified still last week when Russian media reported that in his memoirs, which were published in January and were widely read by police in the republic, Safarov endorsed torture.
Ruslan Zinatullin, head of the Kazan branch of the liberal party, Yabloko, says Safarov is being protected by the regional law-enforcement establishment.
"I think he should be fired. But then again, a clan system long ago took root in the republic and the branches of power that should react to rights abuses -- the prosecutor's office, the Interior Ministry, the Investigative Committee -- they basically cover for each other," Zinatullin said.
Safarov has indeed long been Tatarstan's untouchable man -- but that might be about to change.
After rising through the ranks of the Kazan police force in the 1980s he attached himself to Mintimer Shaimiyev, the republic's powerful president. He served as Shaimiyev's aide and in 1995 was named head of his security force.
In July 1998 Shaimiyev named Safarov Tatarstan's interior minister, a post from which he launched a crackdown on Kazan's notorious organized crime groups.
With the campaign, Safarov won widespread praise for ending the bloody turfs wars that had rocked Russia’s eighth-largest city. But critics like Zinatullin say it was largely cosmetic.
"They jailed the thugs -- the bandits that were killing people openly. But after they were jailed, new ones appeared who were close to the authorities. At the moment there are no open raids and resonant killings, but the level of crime remains high in my opinion," Zinatullin said.
Safarov remained one of the most powerful figures in Tatarstan until Russian President Dmitry Medvedev removed Shaimiyev from office in March 2010, replacing him with Rustam Minnikhanov.
And as the torture scandal mounts, he appears increasingly vulnerable.
Last week, Safarov was formally removed from the republic’s cabinet of ministers. And although that move was part of a national police reform that placed regional interior ministers fully under Moscow's control, the timing was widely interpreted as an attempt by President Minnikhanov to distance himself from Safarov.
And on March 27, the Russian Interior Ministry's Investigative Committee ordered all cases of alleged police abuse dating from January 1, 2010 to be reviewed by an independent police commission sent from Moscow.
Nikolai Petrov, a specialist in regional politics at the Moscow Carnegie Center, says it is just a matter of time before Safarov is sacked.
"In this particular case, it is clear that the guy used to be loyal primarily to the Tatar political elite and he was seen as untouchable for a while. He was perhaps able to show his loyalty to the Kremlin, but there is no need to keep him in office," Petrov said.
Safarov's book has provoked a new storm of controversy
Should Safarov end up losing his job, it would mark the second time this year that a regional police chief was fired over an abuse case. In January, the death of a 15-year-old boy in police custody was used as a pretext for the firing of Mikhail Sukhodolsky, St. Petersburg's top Interior Ministry official.
The pressure on Safarov increased last week when journalists began taking a close look at his memoir -- "The End of A Kazan Phenomenon: The History Of The Liquidation Of Organized Crime Groups In Tatarstan" -- which was published in January and in which he endorsed torture as a police tactic.
"The cruelty of the Middle Ages had a logical explanation -- if you cannot execute a murderer several times, then you take his life in the most agonizing way so that it is an example to all the others," Safarov writes in one passage.
In an interview with the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets," a Tatar police officer identified only as Yury, leapt to Safarov’s defense.
“The liberals are being fussy. You get the impression that no one knew before how confessions were obtained," Yury said. "These methods have not only been used in 1937 [at the height of Soviet leader Josef Stalin's terror]. There are no other ways to protect society from crime. Someone has to do the dirty work. There is a technique of carrying out questioning, a method -- all this has been thought out long before us.”
Predictably, the revelations in Safarov’s book sparked yet another round of criticism.
An editorial on March 26 on the news website Regions.ru opined that Safarov “believes that he beat organized crime in the republic. However, now it has become clear that this victory hinged on terrible lawlessness.”
Moreover, Bulat Mukhamedzhanov, head of the Kazan Human Rights group, notes that police abuse has continued apace, notwithstanding Safarov's pacification of the republic's organized crime groups.
"Based on our work -- and we have been working 10 years on cases involving torture by the police and militia -- the quantity of appeals and complaints about the activity by law enforcement officials has remained more or less on the same level and quantity. It hasn't changed," Mukhamedzhanov said.