Police in Spain have detained notorious Georgian organized crime boss Levan Abuladze -- known in the criminal underworld by the nickname Levan Sukhumsky -- who has been on the run since December 2020 when he escaped from a Russian court building where he had been brought for a pretrial hearing.
Spanish National Police said in a statement on September 2 that Abuladze was arrested at the Barcelona airport while trying to enter the country on a fake Ukrainian passport. Police alleged he had plans to continue running his organization in the country, but was thwarted as a result of joint efforts with Georgian police.
Abuladze, who is a Georgian citizen, is referred to as a thief in law, the highest title in the criminal world's hierarchy in the former Soviet Union.
In December 2020, he managed to escape from a court building in the Russian city of Vladimir, about 200 kilometers east of Moscow, after his handcuffs were removed shortly before a hearing so that he could use a toilet.
In mid-December, Abuladze completed a four-year prison sentence in Russia for illegal drug trafficking and forgery.
Russian authorities initially had planned to deport Abuladze to his native Georgia, but in September, prosecutors filed additional charges against him for "occupying the highest rank in the criminal hierarchy," a crime that carries a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison.
The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) describes the thieves in law as "a Eurasian crime syndicate that has been linked to a long list of illicit activity across the globe." It says the syndicate poses a threat to the United States and its allies.
Thieves in law originated in Stalinist prison camps during the Soviet era.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the OFAC says the thieves in law network has expanded across former Soviet republics, Europe, and the United States, with crimes that include money laundering, extortion, bribery, kidnapping, and robbery.
According to the OFAC, the syndicate's members are "initiated or 'crowned' after demonstrating an 'ideal' criminal biography and take an oath to uphold a code that includes living exclusively off their criminal profits and supporting other thieves in law."
Being a thief in law was criminalized in Russia in April 2019. In Georgia, it was criminalized in 2005.
Two other former Soviet republics, Armenia and Ukraine, also have made it a crime to be a top member of the criminal hierarchy.