In early July, a popular news portal reported that the Supreme Court has drastically revised the prison term for ex-police colonel Rinat Salekhov – from life to 25 years behind bars. The former Head of the MIA Administration for Combating Organized Crime was arrested in 2007 for a number of high-profile crimes and has already served 11 years in ‘Black Dolphin' penal colony. Other media outlets have immediately disseminated the sensational news: such a revision enables Salekhov, nicknamed ‘Black Colonel' by the public, to be released on parole in five years (i.e. after serving two-thirds of his term).
A few hours later, Svobodnaya Pressa–Yug (Free Press–South) Internet portal has refuted the high-profile news – but its report went unnoticed amid the wave of other publications. Valeria Kosovich, a Consultant for Media Liaison of the Administration for Public Relations of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, said that she has no information about the sentence revision. According to the Supreme Court web site, the last attempt of Salekhov to appeal his sentence is dated November 2015. At that time, his request to institute review proceedings with regards to the case № 25-O10-24SSSP was declined. Since, then, only Ildar Fatekhov, an accomplice of Black Colonel, had attempted to revise his sentence – but in vain.
It can’t be ruled out that the Supreme Court web site hasn’t been updated yet – but, in fact, this is unlikely. It is unknown therefore whether Salekhov is going to be released in a few years or doomed to spend the rest of his life in prison. However, the recent media hype has revived memories of events occurring in the previous decade. At that time, a cruel gang had operated in Astrakhan; under the guise of law enforcement, it had dictated the rules of criminal conduct to local bandits.
Since the 1990s, three most powerful organized criminal groups had operated in Astrakhan in addition to smaller ones and determined the criminal situation in the region. Russian Club (athletes) and Tatar Professional Union (an ethnic gang) were considered ‘old timers’. Russian Club had specialized in racket and extortion and controlled taxi drivers and prostitutes. Tatar Professional Union had seized the legal red caviar and fish markets, port operations, and fish poaching. The both groups had controlled the tourism business and entertainment industry. The third major gang was Stepanov family clan having a share in all these spheres. In the late 2000s, a new group of Caucasus natives – so-called Chechen Gang led by Aslambek Datashov and consisting of Chechen and Dagestani people – started putting pressure on the existing criminal groups. In the course of bloody skirmishes with its rivals, Chechen Gang has seized several large markets.
In that period, the Administration for Combating Organized Crime (ACOC) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the Russian Federation had struggled against such criminal groups. The ACOC was similar to the FBI in many ways: work with agents, undercover operations, combating drug dealing and slavery, struggle against thieves-in-law, etc. It even had its own special forces – SWAT. The service originating from the 6th MIA Department was directly subordinate to the Minister of Internal Affairs (at that time, it was Vladimir Rushailo). A characteristic feature of the ACOC was the absence of so-called ‘ticket quota system’ commonly accepted in other MIA divisions (i.e. each department had a plan stipulating how many thefts, murders, and robberies had to be solved in a week, month, and year; how many drunkards and drug users had to be detained, etc.). These figures were mandatory – if, for instance, only 5 cars were stolen in a district, while the MIA district department had to solve 15 car thefts, it was facing problems.
The ACOC was not required to provide nice statistics – it had to achieve real results: put an end to the bloody skirmishes and criminal lawlessness by all means. Everybody clearly understood that breaches of the law were inevitable – such work could not be done ‘in white gloves’. In many regions, the ACOC had pitted gangs against each other to exterminate them by their own hands. As a result, the number of various gangs and organized criminal groups has indeed decreased in comparison with the 1990s – both through the arrests and convictions on the one hand and through gang wars on the other hand. During the rule of Minister Boris Gryzlov, the local ACOC divisions have been reorganized and resubordinated to regional MIA Administrations and General Administrations, thus, incorporating those into the ‘ticket quota system’. This was the end of the structure. Concurrently, the watchdog authorities started instituting criminal cases against ACOC operatives for exceeding official powers, tortures, raidership, etc. For instance, ACOC officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov was accused of murdering journalist Anna Politkovskaya, while his colleague Vyacheslav Dushenko was charged with the murder of Aleksander Pumane, ‘staff killer’ of Kingiseppskie organized criminal group.
In September 2008, the ACOC was disbanded because, according to the official version, the organized crime in our country was wiped out. According to unofficial information, this MIA structure had transformed into an uncontrolled group having extensive connections in the criminal world and possessing compromising materials against many officials and politicians having ties with the organized crime. The power brokers were not interested in disclosure of such materials. In addition, some ACOC operatives were using this information for personal gain.
Colonel Rinat Salekhov, ex-Head of the Administration for Combating Organized Crime of the MIA Administration for the Astrakhan Region, was among them. In 2010, the court sentenced him to life in prison for a series of grievous and especially grievous crimes; his accomplices were convicted to 3.5–25 years behind bars. According to the investigation, in 2003, Black Colonel has created a gang involving ACOC officers subordinate to him (Yuri Krasheninnikov, Andrei Klykanov, Vladimir Grigorshev, and Maksim Sokolov), members of rival gangs Russian Club and Tatar Professional Union (Sergei Velichko, Sergei Nikishov, Petr Golikov, Ildar Fatekhov, and Evgeny Yakushev), Salekhov’s personal killer Pavel Noskov, and Vladimir Slastunov, director of a large Astrakhan enterprise.
The police–thuggish union had specialized in extortion, evidence falsification in criminal cases, fraud money laundering schemes, and high-profile contract assassinations committed in Astrakhan in 2003–2007 – up until the arrest of the gang leader.
Rinat Salekhov joined the Astrakhan police in 1984 as a criminal investigator. Shortly after that, he was sent to the Gorky MIA Academy and graduated from it with distinction. Later he has graduated with distinction from the Moscow MIA Academy. After that, he became an operative in the Department for Combating Misappropriations of Socialist Property (currently the Administration for Combating Economic Crimes). Salekhov had quickly advanced through ranks. After the disbandment of the Department for Combating Misappropriations of Socialist Property, he has transferred to the 6th MIA Department and later became its deputy head. Then he was appointed the Head of the Astrakhan ACOC and held this post up until October 2007 – i.e. until his arrest.
Rinat Salekhov became the Head of the Astrakhan ACOC in 2002. At that time, the wars for spheres of influence between Russian and Chechen gangs were in full bloom. The colonel’s appointment has coincided with a wave of murders of Astrakhan criminal ‘authorities’; there was a true sweeping purge of prominent figures in the local criminal world. According to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR), more than 30 ‘address shootings’ were committed in the city within a few months. The investigators involved into the criminal case against Salekhov still believe that the Head of the Astrakhan ACOC had laid hands on the regional criminal world by detaining some people, making arrangements with others, and provoking escalations of conflicts between local gangs. In 2003, Rumiya Askarova, owner of Kamelia (Camellia) Cafe, was killed in Astrakhan.
The assassins had tortured her with an iron demanding 15 million rubles (some $625 thousand at the exchange rate of that time). Victim’s husband promised a reward for information about the killers. Shortly after that, representatives of the gang led by Datashov approached him and showed a videotape with the assassin describing the crime in detail and items stolen from his home. The man delivered the materials to the ACOC. The operatives have identified the killer – it was a well-known pimp (later he was found dead in the steppe) and suggested that Chechen Gang under the leadership of Aslambek Datashov was responsible for this murder – supposedly, they haven’t found any money in the home and decided to get the reward. After the arrest of Datashov and some other members of his group, the bandits have immediately provided confessions – not because of remorse but for fear of revenge. The criminals became aware that the murdered business lady was a relative of one of the leaders of another powerful gang – Tatar Professional Union – and the thugs’ lives were safer in detention. Two other high-profile murders of Astrakhan Vice Mayor Sergei Nakhshunov and Lyubov Cheremnykh, Deputy Head of the Regional Arbitration Court, have been solved soon – both of them were gunned down by members of Chechen Gang. The court has sentenced the bandits to lengthy prison terms. In response, Aslambek Datashov has declared Salekhov and his deputy Yuri Krasheninnikov his personal enemies and condemned them to death.
Despite his confrontation with Datashov, the Head of the Astrakhan ACOC had pretty constructive relations with representatives of the two other gangs – Russian Club and Tatar Professional Union. According to some information, one of the groups received its name thanks to the police colonel. The ties between the law enforcement commander and organized crime can be illustrated as follows: in the course of searches in the office of businessman Imangali Iskakov, leader of Tatar Professional Union, in 2007, the operatives have found inter alia faxes from the ACOC with warnings about forthcoming MIA operations.
The people started openly discussing the ties between Salekhov and bandits in 2004 – after the murder of Anatoly Goverdovsky, founder of Russian Club. The Chairman of Russkii Klub (Russian Club) Non-Commercial Astrakhan Regional Sports and Public Organization (the gang was named after it) was gunned down in a Toyota Land Cruiser on the territory of Astrakhan Fridge Equipment Plant Limited Liability Company located in the Sovetsky district of Astrakhan. His female acquaintance was also killed, while colonel Nikolai Abramov, an officer of the MIA Administration for the Astrakhan Region, wounded in the shoulder. The police patrol has arrested Akhmad Musaev on the scene; an AK-74M assault rifle was seized from him. Two other assassins managed to escape. After that murder, Salekhov has promised the bandits that their leader will be avenged through the police investigation and trial (a large sum in dollars was reportedly offered to the Head of the Astrakhan ACOC for that favor).
Chechen native Ruslan Mimbulatov was officially designated the primary perpetrator of this crime. He was put on the wanted list and arrested in Dagestan shortly after that. The convoy guards failed to bring Mimbulatov to Astrakhan: in steppe down the road, some plainclothed people have joined them and interrogated the suspect in the field for six hours. The interrogators have tortured Mimbulatov into making confessions – but Astrakhan lawyer Igor Rozenberg saved him from conviction. Then Mimbulatov fled to his native Dagestan. In April 2005, accomplices of Rinat Salekhov attacked the Law Bureau of the City of Astrakhan. Igor Rozenberg and unwitting witness Sergei Zhalilov received numerous stab wounds and died in the hospital. The massacre still causes arguments – on the one hand, it could be an act of revenge for Mimbulatov, but on the other hand, being a good lawyer, Rozenberg could possess evidence that the MIA structure under the command of Salekhov was framing up cases against some of his clients. The attorney could collect compromising materials against Salekhov and his closest aide Yuri Krasheninnikov in regards to the embezzlement of state assets from a technological equipment plant. Vladimir Slastunov, director of that plant, was earlier charged with this crime – but the investigation failed to gather sufficient evidence.
Another lawyer – Evgeny Zamoskovichev – was killed a year before the murder of Rozenberg. In 2003, he had represented an Astrakhan businessman defrauded of $620 thousand by Salekhov (a criminal case was framed up against the businessman, but the lawyer has secured his acquittal). Zamoskovichev, being the Chairman of the Moscow Law Guild, had taken active efforts to unmask the Head of the Astrakhan ACOC. Concurrently, the lawyer had worked for Stepanov family clan. One of its members, Viktor Stepanov, became a prominent figure in the Astrakhan criminal world after the arrest of Aslambek Datashov, leader of Chechen Gang. Viktor was the youngest son of Vasily Stepanov also known as Uncle Vasya. Stepanov senior has made a fortune on poached caviar in the 1990s. Uncle Vasya had extensive connections in the criminal, law enforcement, and political spheres of Astrakhan, he had kept in fear the entire city. “Kidnapped children were held in Uncle Vasya’s basement – but their parents refused to write criminal complaints against him. A slave liberated from his country home had cried with happiness – but on the next day, he submitted a letter of gratitude to Stepanov for giving him a job. Businessmen put ‘on a clock’ by him never complained to the police but instead put their heads in the noose,” – an operative of the Astrakhan special services recalls.
In the early 2000s, a relative of Zukhra Karymsakova, owner of U Zukhry (Zukhra’s) Cafe, has damaged the vehicle belonging to a friend of Stepanov junior in a road accident. The parties failed to negotiate a compensation, and the victim addressed clan Stepanov. The person who had caused the traffic accident had no money, so the bandits put the business lady ‘on a clock’, and seized two her cars after intimidation and tortures. Even the members of Tatar Professional Union providing ‘cover’ to Karymsakova refused to protect her. Instead, they recommended her to address the ACOC. Concurrently with the beginning of the ACOC’s inquest against Viktor Stepanov for armed extortion, he has been sentenced to a term in a settlement colony in the framework of another criminal case. Prior to his arrival to the correctional facility, Stepanov has applied for a release on parole – and it was immediately granted to him. The new charges had entailed a real term in a maximum security penal colony. Evgeny Zamoskovichev, defense attorney for Stepanov, has taken every effort to reclassify the grievous article to “arbitrariness”. Taken his previous conviction, Viktor Stepanov was sentenced to three years in a settlement colony and reportedly was displeased with the performance of Zamoskovichev. This was beneficial for the people of Salekhov – because the lawyer could possess compromising materials against them.
In December 2004, Salekhov has organized, jointly with Yuri Krasheninnikov, Head of the 3rd Department of the Astrakhan ACOC, the murder of Zamoskovichev. The searches for evidence on the crime scene had continued for four days, and the operatives were finding more and more cases in the grass. For some reason, it was decided to search the home of the Stepanov family. The pistol used to gun down the Moscow lawyer was found under the mattress of Viktor Stepanov – although members of clan Stepanov claimed that a “little Tatar boy” had planted the pistol there during the searches.
In June 2005, some mister Kolesnikov was admitted to an Astrakhan hospital with gunshot wounds. The investigation has found out that it was former criminal ‘authority’ Vyacheslav Belanenko, once a leader of Russian Club and currently the cossack chieftain of Gradoforpostinskaya cossack village. He has been on the federal wanted list since 2000 and lived under a fake ID. A prosecution investigator has questioned the wounded man. He permitted the chieftain to post cossacks as guards in the hospital room. No police guards were deployed. But the ACOC has posted its officers near the intense therapy department – allegedly the operatives had expected victim’s brother Igor Belanenko – also put on the wanted list – to visit Vyacheslav. Three days later, the chieftain has been transferred from the intense therapy to trauma unit – and the guards were removed as per order of Rinat Salekhov. A few hours later, two masked people have stormed into the hospital room (later their names became known: Pavel Noskov and Sergei Velichko, members of Russian Club), gunned down with Makarov pistols Belanenko and Kazakh citizen Albert Nugmanov staying in the same room, and heavily wounded chieftain's bodyguard Aleksei Davydov. To put the investigation on the wrong track – a ‘Chechen one' (this version was used by Salekhov in many criminal cases) – the killers forced a knife into Belanenko's temple.
The hospital massacre was investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office; the ACOC had provided operative support to it. Sergei Velichko, a member of Russian Club gang, was arrested shortly after the murder – but no evidence against him could be found. As a result, the man was sentenced to a small prison term for illegal storage of weapons – a grenade was seized from him during searches. Three years later, after the arrest of Salekhov, Velichko was detained again, and an interesting evidence was found in his car – a piece of paper from Salekhov’s notepad. The colonel has depicted on this paper the hospital room and marked the bed of Belanenko with a cross. The origin of this notepad remains unknown, it is not mentioned in the lists of seized items. An independent expert assessment has shown that Salekhov (his handwriting was confirmed) had made notes on the other part of this sheet remaining in the notepad during a visiting conference in Nalchik – but this happened a year after the murder of the chieftain. The investigation also found a witness who had seen the Head of the ACOC drawing the hospital scheme and explaining his deputy Krasheninnikov how to get to the hospital room unnoticed. Then the drawing was given to one of the assassins.
What could happen between Black Colonel and the criminal ‘authority’? According to one of the versions, a businessman had addressed the chieftain of Gradoforpostinskaya cossack village and inquired about weird arson attacks on vehicles occurring every time after rejections of Salekhov’s offers to provide protection ‘cover’. Belanenko offered the businessman his ‘patronage’ and explained by phone that these arson attacks were masterminded by Salekhov. The chieftain had promised to provide the details at a personal meeting but never came to it – his car was gunned down. Belanenko could pose a real threat to Salekhov – after the failed first attempt, he was killed in the hospital. Alternatively, Vyacheslav Belanenko could be killed to demonstrate all the gangsters in the region who is the true power there. By that time, Salekhov was nicknamed not only Black Colonel, but also Puppet Master. He had controlled the main Astrakhan criminal groups – Russian Club and Tatar Professional Union – and masterfully manipulated those in his own interests.
On November 29, 2006, 43-year-old bandit and businessman Viktor Stepanov, leader of a criminal clan not controlled by Salekhov, was abducted near the guardhouse of Astrakhan Rice plant belonging to him. It was decided to weaken this gang by dispatching its leader. Members of Russian Club have performed this operation. The formal reason was the murder of an athlete close to the gang leadership. Pavel Noskov and Evgeny Yakushev wore the SWAT uniform; the abduction was presented as an arrest of a criminal. The following members of Russian Club were involved into this crime: Dmitry Bortnikov, Aleksander Fisenko, and Aleksander Kozakov. The bandits took Viktor Stepanov to the steppe zone of the Leninsky district, killed the victim by stabbing his neck, and buried. His remains were found only in October 2009. It is necessary to note that Stepanov senior lived long enough to see Rinat Salekhov in the dock – Uncle Vasya, ‘godfather’ of the criminal clan, died from heart attack at one of the court sessions where he had testified as a witness.
The police gang was suspected of two more murders – but the ICR operatives failed to gather sufficient evidence and the episodes were excluded from the criminal case. Russian football player Eduard Mil’gizin, who used to play for FC Astrateks Astrakhan in 1992–1993, could help the investigators.
After the death of Anatoly Goverdovsky, this person has taken charge both of Russkii Klub (Russian Club) Non-Commercial Astrakhan Regional Sports and Public Organization and the gang of the same name. But after the arrest of the Head of the ACOC, he has immigrated to the United Arab Emirates – and the ICR failed to extradite him. The two above episodes pertained to the murders of criminal ‘authorities’ Ruslan Ibragimov (Karsak) and Andrei Loginov committed in 2006 and 2007. Ibragimov was gunned down in his Lexus with assault rifles. Loginov had ties with Russian Club and was blasted with a bomb planted into the garbage container near his home. According to one of the versions, Tatar Professional Union could contract this murder. The investigation believed that Salekhov was personally interested in the both assassinations – by causing a quarrel between the two groups, he could charge money for assistance provided to any of the parties.
According to the investigation, the huge volume of assets belonging to Salekhov proves his ties with the criminal world. His wife Oksana was the nominal owner of their business – Imperatritsa (Empress) Multidisciplinary Firm Limited Liability Company. The family had owned 14 residential homes, 36 vehicles, famous Stary Zamok (Old Castle) Cafe and a hotel of the same name, Atlantida (Atlantis) Cafe, sauna, recreation base, and several land lots within the city. Some of the assets had officially belonged to the Head of the ACOC – even though he was a civil servant. The investigators have concluded that all this wealth was gained in unlawful ways, including the concealment of crimes committed by gang members. Black Colonel was also charged with laundering of criminal proceeds. The ICR claims that Salekhov has legalized via Imperatritsa Multidisciplinary Firm belonging to his wife 18 million rubles (some $731.7 thousand at the exchange rate of that time) obtained through blackmailing and racketeering of Astrakhan businessmen. Salekhov was in charge of the ACOC for five years and effectively turned the police structure into a profitable business – in fact, independent from the superior police command. For instance, Yuri Bondar, Deputy Head of the MIA Administration for the Astrakhan Region, had complained long before the trial of Salekhov that ACOC operatives disobeyed the MIA Administration command.
The colonel and his accomplices have been detained simultaneously. Late in the evening of October 10, 2007, Salekhov was invited to the newly-established Investigations Directorate for the Astrakhan Region of the ICR with regards to a traffic accident caused by him (in May 2007, the Head of the ACOC hit three pedestrians with his Toyota Land Cruiser 100 killing two of them and severely injuring the third one). In the course of the questioning, Salekhov has been detained and remanded in custody. Concurrently, five his subordinates, including Yuri Krasheninnikov, have been arrested in different parts of the city. All of them have been charged with the murder of chieftain Belanenko. Sixteen ACOC officers were removed from service together with Salekhov. Then the operatives started arresting members of the organized criminal groups affiliated with the colonel's gang. Only a few of them managed to escape, including Pavel Noskov, ‘staff killer' of Salekhov. He had lived under a fake ID in Solnechnogorsk, Moscow region up until December 2009. Later his case and the case of Evgeny Yakushev were severed from the other defendants.
The criminal case against the gang under the leadership of Salekhov was examined by a panel of jurors. The state prosecutors had to drop half of the charges, including creation of a criminal group, in the course of the court debates due to lack of evidence. Still, the jurors have heard arguments sufficient to convict the ex-Head of the ACOC to life in prison. By the way, Rinat Salekhov had never admitted any guilt. According to the colonel, his structure started experiencing problems after the replacement of top figures in the regional Prosecutor's Office and MIA Administration. People from Volgograd replaced Astrakhan natives. According to Salekhov, Volgograd-based Kazachata (Cossack Boys) organized criminal group specializing in poaching has entered the region. Since the beginning of 2006, the ACOC has been receiving information that a large factory-ship accepting fish from poachers appeared in the Caspian border guard control zone. According to operative information, seven crews from Volgograd had been poaching there on a regular basis. In spring, the ACOC has seized from them several tons of sturgeons, while in the course of Putina (Fishing Season) operation in October, the operatives have discovered 600 kg of black caviar in an abandoned country house. The poachers had been arrested, but the Prosecutor’s Office interfered, and the detained suspects were released.
According to Salekhov a true war has escalated between the ACOC and Prosecutor's Office after that story. The ACOC was arresting criminals, while the Prosecutor's Office was releasing them. Operatives had accused prosecutors of dismissing criminal cases for remuneration; in turn, prosecutors had instituted criminal cases against operatives for exceeding official powers. Over time, the criminals busted by the Astrakhan ACOC became witnesses in cases instituted by the Astrakhan Prosecutor's Office. "I was detained because the ACOC was faithful in the performance of its duty by identifying and solving the crimes, – Salekhov told journalists at one of the first court sessions. – I definitely was inconvenient for somebody. It was not just my arrest, it was disorganization of the entire work of our structure".
The case against Salekhov was truly unparalleled at that time – by the supreme ranks held by some defendants, by the cruelty of committed crimes, by the attempts to put pressure on the investigation, including attacks on members of the investigation team, and by the number of complaints on violations submitted by the defense. Everything was present in that case – jurors with tarnished reputations, threats, beatings, etc. For instance, out of the 12 jurors examining the case against Salekhov, 5 persons, including the chancellor, had criminal records or relatives with criminal records. Even the father of Olga Kovaleva, judge of the Astrakhan Regional Court, had earlier been convicted for poaching. Paradoxically, he was arrested by subordinates of Salekhov. Valery Krasnov, the first chancellor of the panel of jurors, said that a portion of the evidence was falsified – and he was beaten near his home on the same evening. A person with a criminal record has replaced him as the chancellor. To compare: the Prosecutor's Office has annulled the acquittal of killer Noskov delivered by the jurors after finding among them a person having a criminal record.
Salekhov in court
After the sentencing, the ex-Head of the ACOC had repeatedly attempted to appeal the court verdict in various instances and submitted letters to the European Court of Human Rights, Supreme Court of Russia, President Vladimir Putin, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. In each letter, he requested his case to be reviewed “by a legitimate composition of court – not by those having issues with the law”.
The situation is pretty controversial indeed. It is not a secret that in the 1990s and 2000s, the law enforcement authorities had used bandits’ methods, while bandits collaborated with the policing structures to eliminate rivals and enter legal markets. Who is Rinat Salekhov? A rational puppet master ruling his criminal empire or a crime fighter using methods believed to be acceptable for the Head of the ACOC in that period? Too bad, but many questions in the case of Black Colonel still remain unanswered.
Initially, the defendants in the case had been charged with embezzlement through swindling in the amount of 225 million rubles ($3.3 million). In the final version of the indictment, the article was changed to 1.5-billion-ruble ($22.45 million) embezzlement.