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Notorious Uzbek 'Thief-in-Law' On Trial As Tashkent Targets Powerful Crime Bosses

Bakhtiyor Qudratullaev (aka Bakhti Tashkentsky)
Bakhtiyor Qudratullaev (aka Bakhti Tashkentsky)

TASHKENT -- Notorious Uzbek criminal kingpin Bakhtiyor Qudratullaev (aka Bakhti Tashkentsky) and 36 others are on trial in Tashkent in what Uzbekistan says is a campaign against organized crime and street gangs.

The charges against Qudratullaev, 52, include inflicting serious bodily harm resulting in death, unlawful deprivation of liberty, and organizing a criminal group. Among the defendants in the Shaykhontohur district court are his brother, Shuhrat, and his son, Ikhtiyor.

The trial -- which is being held openly and widely followed by the public -- comes nearly three months after a Tashkent court sentenced powerful businessman Salim Abduvaliev, described in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable as a "Tashkent mafia chieftain," to six years in prison for weapons trafficking.

Qudratullaev, once an influential figure in the Uzbek criminal underworld, had been in and out for prison for decades on various criminal charges ranging from illegal weapons possession and drug trafficking.

He was known as a so-called thief-in-law (vor v zakone in Russian), a term used in Soviet times for underworld bosses who followed certain criminal codes and enjoyed a certain clout within their organized crime groups or in prison culture.

Qudratullaev is on trial in Tashkent (police photo)
Qudratullaev is on trial in Tashkent (police photo)

Qudratullaev was last freed from prison in December 2014 for health reasons. Several months ahead of his release, Qudratullaev was transferred from the notorious Zhaslik facility to a prison hospital.

Qudratullaev kept a relatively low profile for a few years until it was reported in 2018 that he had organized a gathering of thieves-in-law and other high-ranking crime bosses from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

The gathering, brazenly hosted at a villa in Tashkent, was described as the first of its kind in Uzbekistan in more than 20 years.

On The President’s Order?

More than 200 people were arrested across Uzbekistan during the police campaign against organized crime and street gangs in November and December 2023.

The campaign climaxed with the March trial of 73-year-old Abduvaliev in a Tashkent district court.

A former wrestler turned wealthy businessman, Abduvaliev had been serving as vice president of Uzbekistan’s National Olympic Committee and head of the Uzbekistan Wrestling Association.

Known locally as Salimboy or Salim the Rich, Abduvaliev was widely believed to be one of the most powerful figures in the Uzbek criminal underworld.

According to a U.S. diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks in 2011, Abduvaliev had close connections with the Uzbek government that enabled him to "sell" high-ranking state posts or help companies of his choice secure profitable government contracts.

Salim Abduvaliev (left) was described in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable as a "Tashkent mafia chieftain."
Salim Abduvaliev (left) was described in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable as a "Tashkent mafia chieftain."

After his arrest in December -- a move that surprised many Uzbeks -- Tashkent deputy police chief Doniyor Toshkhojaev said law enforcement agencies had been investigating Abduvaliev for "months and years." It's not known why Abduvaliev had fallen out of favor with the Uzbek officials who finally moved to prosecute him.

Other high-profile crime bosses arrested in the raids were Saidaziz Saidaliev (aka Saidaziz Medgorodok), Lutfullo Umarov, and Abbos Khojaev.

Saidaliev -- whose charges include extortion, organizing a criminal group, and threatening murder -- went on trial on June 11 in Tashkent’s Yunusobod district court with 28 other defendants.

Qudratullaev's 28-year-old son, Ikhtiyor, was taken into custody in December on suspicion of "large-scale extortion committed by a criminal group."

Multiple sources in Tashkent told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the arrests of Abduvaliev and other crime bosses were ordered by President Shavkat Mirziyoev as Tashkent sought to rein in the criminal underworld.

Speaking at an official gathering in Tashkent in late December, Mirziyoev said Uzbekistan's "streets and neighborhoods" must be "peaceful, clean, and free from crime."

He vowed that in the "new Uzbekistan" under his rule "the law will prevail" and crimes will not go unpunished.

That speech came just two years after Mirziyoev bestowed crime boss Abduvaliev with the prestigious title of Honored Sports Coach.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague based on RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reporting in Tashkent.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service relies on innovation and a wide network of local sources and platforms to uncover news and engage with audiences in one of the world’s most restrictive societies.

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