A notorious criminal syndicate that brings together mafia bosses from across the former Soviet Union has crowned a new kingpin from Uzbekistan -- bestowing 42-year-old convicted murderer Akhtam Yakubov with the title of "thief-in-law."
RFE/RL sources with ties to Central Asia's criminal underworld say Yakubov's crowning was approved "as an exception" by the imprisoned Russian mafia godfather Zakhary Kalashov.
They say the 66-year-old Kalashov -- a Georgian-born Yazidi widely known by the nickname Shakro Molodoi -- agreed to lift a moratorium he'd declared in 2014 on accepting new members to the elite ranks of the so-called "Thieves-in-Law."
Those sources say Yakubov's crowning also was approved in advance by the only living member of the Thieves-in-Law from Uzbekistan, Bakhti "Tashkentsky" Qudratullaev.
A retired colonel in one of Uzbekistan's security services and organized-crime sources have told RFE/RL that the kingmaker behind Yakubov's accession to the Thieves-In-Law was Ravshan "Zolotoi" Muhiddinov, an influential Uzbek businessman and alleged member of an international crime syndicate called the Brothers' Circle.
Muhiddinov is the nephew of Gafur Rakhimov, the controversial Uzbek sports administrator and alleged crime boss who stepped down on March 22 as the president of amateur boxing's world governing body, the International Boxing Assocaition (AIBA).
The U.S. Treasury Department has described Rakhimov as one of Uzbekistan's "leading criminals," with "links to the heroin trade."
Rakhimov says he has never taken part in any criminal activity. He has hired powerful law firms in the United States and Britain in an attempt to clear his name.
But he has been blacklisted by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for allegedly giving support to the Thieves-in-Law.
The OFAC describes the Thieves-in-Law as a "Eurasian crime syndicate" linked to "a long list of illicit activity across the globe" that includes "money laundering, extortion, bribery, and robbery."
"The Thieves-in-Law originated in Stalinist prison camps," the OFAC explained when it imposed sanctions against Rakhimov along with "crowned" members of the group in December 2017.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the OFAC says, the Thieves-in-Law has "grown into a vast criminal organization which has spread throughout the former Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States."
"Its 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 support [for] other thieves-in-law," the OFAC says.
At gatherings of the group, called "skhodka," the crime bosses make decisions on issues such as "specific criminal activity, redistribution of criminal spheres of interest, responses to law enforcement operations, crowning of new thieves-in-law, and punishment of those who violate Thieves-in-Law traditions and customs," the OFAC says.
Mafia Summit In Istanbul
Sources close to the post-Soviet criminal underworld told RFE/RL that Yakubov's so-called "coronation" took place on April 12 at a fancy, privately owned restaurant in Istanbul's historic capital district of Fatih.
Sources familiar with the gathering say it was attended by 15 crowned thieves-in-law, mostly from Georgia, including several members of the Georgian Kutaisi clan who now live in Istanbul.
Dozens of other thieves-in-law from Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia also followed the proceedings via the Internet using Skype or other video live-streaming applications.
They included Azerbaijani thief-in-law Nadir "Lotu Guli" Salifov, a known friend of Muhiddinov who watched Yakubov's coronation via the Internet from Abu Dhabi.
The main organizer of the meeting was Temuri Nemsitsveridze, the 64-year-old Kutaisi clan leader known by the nickname Tsripa Kutaisky.
The meeting was led by the Georgian crime boss David Chkhikvishvili, who also is known as Dato Surgutsky.
The sources told RFE/RL that other crowned thieves-in-law at Yakubov's coronation included Lasha "Pitersky" Dogonadze, Roman "Batumsky" Khmaladze, Esebua Dzhundo Avtandilovich (aka Johnny Kutaisky), Teymuraz Churadze (Aleko Shoshiya), Zaal "Glekhovich" Makharoblidze, Amiran "Lanchkhutsky" Ebralidze, and Gocha "Kursha" Dzhuncharadze.
Uzbekistan's other crowned thief-in-law, Qudratullaev, did not attend the Istanbul meeting or watch the event over the Internet, the sources said.
Contact In Prison
As a newly crowned thief-in-law, Yakubov takes the name of his hometown in Uzbekistan -- Samarkand.
Among other thieves-in-law and mobsters lower in the criminal hierarchy, he is now known as Akhtam Samarkandsky.
Yakubov was convicted in 1998 in the United Arab Emirates of murdering an Uzbek woman who headed a prostitution ring in Dubai. He also was convicted of killing her bodyguard.
Initially sentenced to life in prison, his punishment was later reduced to 25 years.
He served 17 years before his early release in 2015.
By that time, he had established himself as a mafia underboss who was in charge of all the criminal gangs in the prison.
Muhiddinov fled Uzbekistan in 2007 after he was charged there with being the head of an organized criminal group.
Muhiddinov, who was only 18 at the time, has never stood trial on those charges.
But he was detained in Istanbul in 2009 on an international arrest warrant filed from Tashkent and held for three years while Turkish officials considered Uzbekistan's request for his extradition.
In 2012, Turkish authorities released Muhiddinov after ruling there was not enough evidence to extradite him.
He then went to the U.A.E. where, in 2013, he was again detained on Uzbekistan's international arrest warrant.
After two months, the courts in the U.A.E. also rejected Tashkent's extradition request for lack of evidence.
Sources familiar with Yakubov's admission into the Thieves-in-Law told RFE/RL that it was during Muhiddinov's two-month imprisonment in the U.A.E. that he met and befriended the prison's criminal underboss, Yakubov.
Those sources said that Rakhimov, the IABA's former president, resigned from his position within the Brother's Circle at about the same time in 2013 and named Muhiddinov as his replacement.
They said Rakhimov never again met with any members of the Brother's Circle after the summer of 2013.
A retired colonel from one of Uzbekistan's security services, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity out of fears for his safety, also told RFE/RL that Rakhimov's nephew replaced him within the Brother's Circle in 2013 -- a position that he said has given Muhiddinov enormous influence with the Thieves-in-Law.
Sources with links to Central Asian criminal groups tell RFE/RL that it was Muhiddinov who helped Yakubov relocate to Istanbul after his release from prison in 2015.
They say Muhiddinov also introduced Yakubov to crime bosses from former Soviet republics who are now living in Istanbul and in the United Arab Emirates.