Authorities in Kyrgyzstan say they have detained the country’s most-wanted criminal kingpin. But contradictory stories about his arrest are already prompting questions. A slippery figure the US government calls a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker,” Kamchybek Kolbayev has enjoyed ambiguous relations with Kyrgyz authorities for years.
Kolbayev turned himself in at 5:00 am Saturday, a Supreme Court press release said today. A Court spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that Kolbayev has been charged with a variety of crimes, including organizing a criminal group, narcotics possession, kidnapping, and illegal possession of firearms. Yet the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), which is holding Kolbayev, told EurasiaNet.org he has not been charged and is being held in temporary confinement for one month while investigators consider their options. The Prosecutor General’s office refused to comment.
That Kolbayev, who had been living in the United Arab Emirates, would surrender is surprising. He’d been fingered in just about every conversation about organized crime since the family of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled during a bloody uprising in April 2010. With the family’s departure, Kolbayev was believed to have lost his cover, or krysha as they call it in Russian, his “roof.”
Last week, Kyrgyz-language newspaper Uchur reported that Kolbayev had flown back into Kyrgyzstan unmolested and had headed straight for his native Issyk-Kul region.
The Border Service told 24.kg today that Kolbayev crossed the border in the company of GKNB officers, but did not say when. (The Border Service, a department within the GKNB, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Whether the GKNB was providing Kolbayev protection or shepherding him to their detention facility isn’t clear. Given his background, which is riddled with tales of buying off authorities and slipping into and out of the country, either story is believable.
Kyrgyzstan’s prison system – where Kolbayev has served time – is another place this “thief-in-law,” or criminal boss, is said to enjoy widespread support.
In early 2011, when authorities overturned Kolbayev’s earlier parole (2005 or 2009, depending whom you ask) as part of their much-trumpeted fight against organized crime, up to 10,000 inmates launched a hunger strike. At the time, prison authorities claimed Kolbayev gave the orders to strike. The deputy chief of the prison system said inmates were demanding “no one touch members of organized crime groups and Kamchy Kolbayev.”
Vast quantities of Afghan narcotics transit Kyrgyzstan en route to Russia and Europe. From time to time senior politicians are said to be involved, which inevitably leads to accusations they conspire with underworld figures like Kolbayev. Certainly, crime and politics have long gone hand in hand in Kyrgyzstan. That was supposed to change in the post-Bakiyev era, but many believe the ethnic violence that followed Bakiyev’s ouster was directly related to criminal networks including Kolbayev’s.
Somewhere along the way Kolbayev ran afoul of the US government. Earlier this year, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on him, calling him a manager in an organized criminal group called the “Brothers’ Circle.” Treasury said he oversees the group's “Central Asian activities, including narcotics trafficking. In June 2011, President Obama identified Kolbayev as a significant foreign narcotics trafficker under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act,” Treasury said in February.
Fans of the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan will be heartened if authorities can find a way to keep Kolbayev in prison. But with his supporters believed to occupy senior government positions, expect the mudslinging to begin in earnest. Kolbayev surely has a few stories to tell.