Notorious organized crime boss Levan Abuladze -- known in the criminal underworld by the nickname Levan Sukhumsky -- has reportedly escaped from a Russian court building where he had been brought for a pretrial hearing.
Russian media reports quote police sources in the city of Vladimir, about 200 kilometers east of Moscow, as saying that Abuladze's handcuffs were removed inside the Oktyabr District Court building shortly before his December 16 hearing so that he could use a toilet.
The police sources said Abuladze went missing after going into the toilet and that guards have been unable to find him.
Abuladze, a 45-year-old citizen of Georgia, is a member of an infamous group of criminals from former Soviet republics known as the Thieves-In-Law.
On December 15, Abuladze completed a four-year prison sentence for illegal drug trafficking and forgery.
Authorities initially had planned to deport Abuladze to his native Georgia after he completed that four-year sentence.
But in September, prosecutors filed additional charges against him of "occupying the highest rank in the criminal hierarchy" -- a crime with a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison.
The Oktyabr District Court had been expected to issue a ruling on Abuladze's pretrial detention on December 16.
But court officials told Russia's Kommersant newspaper that a ruling was not issued "because he was not brought to the courtroom."
The directorate of Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service in Vladimir has refused to answer journalists' questions regarding Abuladze's reported escape.
The regional prosecutor's office and the police department in Vladimir also have declined to comment.
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 Thieves-In-Law 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 member of the Thieves-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.