Did an arrested Uzbek ‘mafia chieftain’ organise killings of dissidents?

Twelve years ago, an Uzbek hitman tried to kill an exiled imam in Sweden. The rest may not be history, just yet.

Imam Obid-kori Nazarov
A hitman attempted to kill Obid-kori Nazarov, an outspoken exiled Uzbek imam, in 2012 [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

On his Swedish visa application, Yuri Zhukovsky said he was an administrator of Pakhtakor, ex-Soviet Uzbekistan’s most popular football club, and attached a letter of recommendation.

The burly, dark-haired 35-year-old arrived in Stockholm in February 2012 and travelled hundreds of kilometres up to Sweden’s frigid north to the Arctic town of Stromsund, an unlikely place to encounter an Uzbek imam.

But there he was – Obid-kori Nazarov, full-bearded and bespectacled, living with his family far from his arid Central Asian home in an apartment provided by the Swedish authorities, who granted him asylum in 2006 after he fled Uzbekistan.

It wasn’t Zhukovsky’s first time in Stromsund. At his trial, he would testify that he had already been there twice to secretly videotape Nazarov. He sent the footage to the man who hired Zhukovsky as a hitman for $200,000.

On February 22, 2012, the 54-year-old imam finished the midday prayer at a nearby mosque and went to his honey-coloured apartment building.

Zhukovsky whipped out a gun with a silencer and shot Nazarov four times. Three bullets entered Nazarov’s head. His nine-year-old grandson found him lying in a pool of blood by a stairwell.

Zhukovsky dashed away, leaving the gun just metres away from the apartment building along with a bag with plenty of his DNA samples for his future conviction.

Miraculously, Nazarov survived the 2012 shooting – and woke up from a five-year coma while Sweden got his failed killer extradited from Russia, tried and sentenced to life in jail.

An unprecedented crackdown on a criminal underworld

Salim Abduvaliev, the reported owner of the Pakhtakor football club, was a wrestling champion in the 1970s.

“Wrestling is my life,” he told a video blogger on May 5, 2020, the day he turned 70, as he stood in the courtyard of his mansion in Tashkent styled as an Italian palazzo and surrounded with blossoming flowers.

Abduvaliev heads the Uzbekistan Wrestling Association and serves as deputy head of the National Olympic Committee.

But in 2023, he ended up on a wanted list on suspicion of “extortion, money laundering and document forgery” while Abduvaliev was detained during an operation conducted by gun-toting, masked police officers.

Abduvaliev, who has a penchant for frameless designer sunglasses, bespoke suits and impeccably polished shoes with his personal logo on the soles, was detained in Tashkent on December 1 last year.

Police stormed into his mansion and forced him and an unspecified number of other men into police buses, the Eltuz Telegram channel reported, quoting security officials.

Days later, an Uzbek prosecutor said Abduvaliev was formally arrested and is being investigated for “illegal possession and transportation of arms and explosives” and may face up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

Within days, about 200 men suspected of racketeering and drug trafficking were detained throughout Uzbekistan in an unprecedented crackdown on the criminal underworld of Central Asia’s most populous nation, which borders Afghanistan.

The detainees included alleged gangsters with colourful nicknames such as Aziz “Chuchvara” (“Dumpling”) and Avaz “Korakamish” (“Black Reed”).

“All these scumbags were rounded up all together,” a high-ranking security officer told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity. “Here’s an end to their cobweb.”

The officer said the detentions would put an end to the trafficking of Afghan heroin to Russia and farther into Europe.

However, in 2019, responding to the alleged criminal connections of Abduvaliev and another Uzbek sports functionary, Gafur Rakhimov, Uzbekistan’s former interior minister said in 2019 that both men had “nothing to do with crime”.

“They’re Uzbekistan’s pride. They’re true patriots,” said Zakir Almatov, who headed the Uzbek police from 1991 to 2006.

A charismatic preacher

In the early 1990s, crowds of worshippers thronged the white-brick Tokhtaboy Mosque in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, to hear Nazarov’s sermons.

Cabbies and market sellers listened to them on audio cassettes, and his rock-star fame made Nazarov a candidate for the mufti’s chair.

Nazarov’s homilies and popularity embodied the renaissance of Islam in Uzbekistan, the Great Silk Road’s focal point, which had spawned Muslim polymaths such as Avicenna, al-Biruni and al-Khoresmi.

Officially atheist Communist Moscow tried to uproot Islam in Central Asia. Uzbekistan’s first post-Soviet ruler, Islam Karimov, tried to harness its revival.

Despite his first name, the former Communist apparatchik Karimov distrusted imams and believers who preached and prayed outside the mosques his officials approved and intelligence services monitored.

And Nazarov often lambasted Karimov’s increasingly heavy-handed policies in his speeches.

By the late 1990s, thousands of Uzbek Muslims were being charged with “extremism” and “terrorism” in what human rights groups and Western governments called government-orchestrated trials. They ended up in maximum-security prisons where they were routinely tortured – occasionally to death.

Nazarov fled Uzbekistan in 1998, first to neighbouring Kazakhstan and then to Sweden. Three of his brothers were jailed for “extremism”. His son Khusnutdin disappeared in Tashkent in 2004.

Nazarov’s contract-style assassination was designed to prove that Karimov’s critics can’t hide even beyond the Arctic Circle, a Swedish prosecutor said.

Krister Petersson told a court in 2015 that Nazarov’s shooting “was carried out following an order of Uzbek authorities” and called Uzbekistan a “gangster state”.

The chaotic 1990s

Uzbekstan’s criminal “cobweb” was woven during Karimov’s rule – and with his tacit approval, according to organised crime experts and leaked United States diplomatic cables.

Gangs headed by former athletes or career criminals known as “crowned thieves” mushroomed throughout the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s at the time of Nazarov’s first fiery sermons.

But while in places like Russia or Ukraine gang wars raged for years, claiming hundreds of lives, Karimov pledged to nip the nascent domestic mafia in the bud.

A teenage bystander was killed during a 1993 shootout in a Tashkent park, and within months, Karimov forced most of the criminal bosses into exile.

But he allowed a selected few to operate in return for cooperation with law enforcement agencies, analysts said.

Former wrestler Abduvaliev and ex-boxer Rakhimov – better known by their first names, Salim and Gafur – topped the list, according to crime experts and media reports.

Salim Kirgizbaevich Abduvaliev
Observers have accused Salim Abduvaliev of involvement in persecuting dissidents [Courtesy: Creative Commons]

The deal was conditional: They had to ensure that street crime was “significantly reduced”, had to start legal businesses and sponsor “a sports federation each”, according to Alisher Ilkhamov, the Uzbekistan-born head of Central Asia Due Diligence, a think tank in London.

The last part of the Faustian deal was simple: to provide “services to the country’s special services in the persecution of dissidents”, he wrote.

In 1997, Abduvaliev became head of the Uzbekistan Wrestling Association and in 2000 deputy head of the National Olympic Committee.

Rakhimov held a number of boxing-related jobs and caused an international scandal after reportedly helping Russia “win” the right to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Gafur Rakhimov
Gafur Rakhimov, now 72, is accused of a slew of crimes [File: Pavel Golovkin/AP]

Salim and Gafur grew into organised crime kingpins who “controlled large parts of the illicit economy, sought national recognition, influenced politics and retained vast international connections”, said Erica Marat, a professor at the College of International Security Affairs.

“They also functioned above the law. State authorities had limited to no impact over their activities.”

They were also involved in drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Russia and European countries, she wrote in a 2022 paper co-authored with Gulzat Botoeva.

Gafur and Salim – without any last names – were mentioned in reports written in the late 1990s by Alexander Litvinenko, an officer with the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s main intelligence agency.

Litvinenko said Gafur and Salim used links to Afghan strongman Rashid Dustum, an ethnic Uzbek who controlled parts of northern Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

Litvinenko also alleged that the two developed ties to the Russian mob, corrupt intelligence officials and future Russian President Vladimir Putin, who headed the FSB from 1998 to 1999.

Litvinenko also accused Putin of ordering residential buildings blown up in three Russian cities in 1999 to blame the attacks on Chechen separatists as a pretext to invade the de facto independent Muslim province. He defected to London and was killed by poisoning with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006.

File photo of Litvinenko, then an officer of Russia''s state security service FSB, attending a news conference in Moscow
Alexander Litvinenko, then a Russian FSB officer, attends a news conference in Moscow in 1998 [File: Vasily Djachkov/Reuters]

Putin repeatedly called Litvinenko a “traitor” as British authorities said the Russian president “probably” approved his “assassination”.

Another observer who visited Uzbekistan multiple times from 1993 to 2005 to monitor the persecution of the opposition and its human rights situation, pointed to the niche Abduvaliev and Rakhimov occupied in Karimov’s power structures.

Nikolay Mitrokhin, a researcher with Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera: “Salim and Gafur were some sort of shadow ‘problem solvers’ tied to the cotton business, tennis and foreign contacts of criminal character.”

“Gafur and Salim were seen as a branch of power with a specific sphere of responsibility,” he said, adding that his conclusion was based on conversations with former top officials.

‘The princess’

In the early 2000s, Abduvaliev, also known as Salim “Boyvaccha” (“Rich”), also became a mighty powerbroker, according to leaked US diplomatic cables.

A former US ambassador called him a “mafia chieftain” who “often serves as a middleman in fixing [government] tenders and helping applicants obtain government jobs”.

“Foreign investors can ‘win’ [government] tenders by arranging them through Salim, who charges a percentage of revenues as a fee,” the cable said.

The candidates for the government jobs then got a stamp of approval from Gulnara Karimova, the president’s eldest daughter, who created a vast business empire which operated via the Swiss-registered Zeromax company.

While in Sweden, the failed killer Zhukovsky received a money transfer from a Moscow-based company called Zeromaks, but Swedish authorities couldn’t find a link to Karimova’s Zeromax.

Karimova is currently serving a 13-year jail sentence for extortion and money laundering.

Another leaked cable characterised Abduvaliev as a “crime boss” who threw a lavish engagement party for his son, Sardor, in 2005 at his mountain chalet decorated by a designer from the Versace fashion house.

Among the guests were the wives of the Uzbek justice, finance and foreign ministers – and each received necklaces worth $1,000, the cable said.

Another cable described the guest list at Abduvaliev’s 2006 birthday party, which included Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian mobsters, athletes, celebrities and the son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s president.

Imam’s recovery

Zhukovsky, the hitman hired to kill the imam, testified in Sweden that the hit was “commissioned” by an Uzbekistan-born man named Tigran Kaplanov. The two had met in a Russian jail while serving time for illegal arms possession.

Kaplanov was also mentioned by two witnesses who testified in the trial of two men who had gunned down another fugitive Uzbek iman, Abdulaziz Bukhari, in 2014 in Istanbul, Turkey.

The witnesses said Kaplanov “commissioned” the murder – and also planned to organise the assassinations of President Karimov’s main rival, Mohammad Salih, and his son, who also lived in Turkey.

“Tigran Kaplanov was one of the heads of the group that was told to liquidate me, my son Timur Salih, a Kyrgyz imam and Abdulaziz Buhari, who was shot dead in the end,” said Salih, whose Erk political party was forced to disband after he challenged Karimov in the 1991 presidential election.

“What saved us was that my son and I had bodyguards,” he told Al Jazeera.

When Swedish prosecutors asked for Kaplanov’s extradition, Uzbek prosecutors said he had died.

“Tashkent said he had died, but he was in Kazakhstan at the time,” Salih said.

In Tashkent, Kaplanov was seen in Abduvaliev’s coterie, according to Nadejda Atayeva, head of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia.

Abduvaliev allegedly received “commissions” from Uzbek intelligence to hunt down fugitive dissidents, said Atayeva, whose group has for decades documented rights abuses in Uzbekistan.

“And he was rewarded for it. At the time, he received state orders that were fulfilled by the companies he controlled,” Atayeva, who fled Uzbekistan in 2000 and lives in the northwestern French city of Le Mans, told Al Jazeera.

She accused Abduvaliev’s henchmen of being behind the 2011 contract-style killing of Fuad Rustamkhojaev, a businessman-turned-opposition activist, in the western Russian town of Ivanovo.

Atayeva said Abduvaliev became involved in a crackdown on the Uzbek opposition in 2005 after Karimov ordered a mass shooting of opposition protesters and shut down a US military base on the Afghan border.

She accused the SNB, the National Security Service, of directing the actions of Abduvaliev’s henchmen.

The orders Abduvaliev and his men received from Uzbek intelligence “were about extrajudicial beatings, executions and takeovers of dissidents’ property”, Atayeva said.

‘A very holy man’

Abduvaliev adamantly denied any involvement in organised crime, saying the source of his wealth was “consultations”.

“They come for a consultation, ask for advice,” Abduvaliyev told the video blogger. “I don’t even ask them for money. They bring it themselves and leave by my house.”

He never hesitated to show off his wealth.

He was videotaped while flying in a private jet and boasted that his steam bath was a replica of a hammam shown in a Turkish television series about an Ottoman sultan.

He received “the other Nobel prize” US-born businessman Ludwig Nobel gives to “wise elders”.

In his house, he welcomed celebrities, including Russian athletes, film actors and television personalities.

And even during lavish parties thrown for them, he didn’t forget to praise Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Our president, may God bless him with health, is a very holy man,” he said in 2018 while toasting a guest, Mikhail Porechenkov, a Russian film actor who has since been blacklisted in the West for his support of the war in Ukraine.

Mirziyoyev was Karimov’s prime minister for a decade and rose to power after his boss’s 2016 death.

On December 4, 2016, when Mirziyoyev was elected president, Abduvaliev was photographed wearing a T-shirt that read, “My president”.

The new president allowed Abduvaliev “to be affiliated with the government”, Marat and Botoeva wrote.

Seven years later, an Uzbek police official said Abduvaliev’s December 1 arrest followed long periods of scrutiny.

“This information has been verified not for one or two days but for months and years,” the deputy head of the Tashkent police, Donier Tashkhodjayev, said at a news conference on December 12.

An exiled opposition leader, however, said the arrest followed fears of a coup.

“Mirziyoyev is afraid of a coup, and [the criminal gangs] got hold of weapons, began to dominate law enforcement agencies,” the opposition leader told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.

Other observers said Abduvaliev and some of the alleged mobsters may walk away scot-free or serve nominal jail sentences after striking a deal with Mirziyoyev’s government similar to the pact made with Karimov in the 1990s.

In exchange, authorities would expect the gangsters to crack down on street crime, fund social and sports projects, and probably, yet again, organize assaults on government critics, Ilkhamov of Central Asia Due Diligence said.

“Considering that Mirziyoyev’s repressive regime is only getting stronger, one can expect such recidivism,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera