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Kyrgyz Kingpin Kolbaev Killed in Bishkek Pub by Security Services

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Kyrgyz Kingpin Kolbaev Killed in Bishkek Pub by Security Services

Kolbaev’s death was a sudden end to a long, infamous, career of escaping the law both internationally and within Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz Kingpin Kolbaev Killed in Bishkek Pub by Security Services
Credit: Flickr / Dan Lundberg

The notorious, internationally wanted, criminal kingpin Kamchybek Kolbaev was killed in a shootout in a Bishkek pub on October 4. Kolbaev’s death was a sudden end to a long, infamous career of escaping the law, both internationally and within Kyrgyzstan.

The Kyrgyz State Committee of National Security claimed that Kolbaev – aka Kamchybek Asanbek – was killed during a special operation at the Blonder Pub in Bishkek. When officers attempted to detain him, the security service says, he “offered resistance using firearms” and officers returned fire, killing Kolbaev.

The security services were reportedly investigating Kolbaev’s alleged involvement in the murder of another criminal, Chingiz “Doo [Giant]” Jumagulov in a pre-trial detention center in July 2022, as well as for seizing the property of businesspeople. These are cases that have been in the air for several months. For example, in May reported that members of Kolbaev’s criminal group had been detained in relation to allegations of stealing from entrepreneurs importing goods from China.

Kolbaev was a known criminal. As RFE/RL noted in a report from 2019, “Kolbaev is registered with the Ministry of Internal Affairs as the leader of an organized criminal group.” At the time, he was being questioned in a fraud case that went nowhere, a common theme.

In 2012, then-U.S. President Barack Obama designated Kolbaev a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. Later that year, he was detained in the United Arab Emirates and extradited to Kyrgyzstan, where he was sentenced to 5 1/2 years on extortion charges. The sentence was reduced for unknown reasons to three years;  after being credited with time served in pre-trial detention, he was released early in June 2014.

Just a month before his early release, however, the U.S. State Department designed him as a target of their Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program (TOCRP) with an initial reward of up to $1 million (it was raised to $5 million in 2021) for information leading to his arrest and/or conviction.

In May 2014, the press release announcing the reward alleged that Kolbaev was at the center of a criminal network with ties to the so-called Brothers’ Circle, a debated term used primarily by the United States to refer to a range of sometimes intersecting Russian and Eurasian criminal figures and networks. Kolbaev is often referred to as a “thief-in-law,” a member of a criminal network stretching across the former Soviet Union into which he was inducted in Moscow in 2008.

Kolbaev’s next run-in with the law was brief. He was detained under allegations of operating an organized criminal group in October 2020 – an arrest welcomed by the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek. But in early March 2021 he was released, though ordered to stay in Cholpon-Ata, his hometown. Soon, however, the security services clarified that his relatives had paid 49.6 million soms to the state – seemingly taking advantage of President Sadyr Japarov’s “economy amnesty” program, informally known as kusturizatsia

As Aksana Ismailbekova explained in an article for The Diplomat recently: 

Kusturizatsia, a term derived from the word for “vomiting” in Kyrgyz, is used to refer to those who damage the state through corrupt practices and economic crimes (such as stealing from the state budget or not paying taxes), and are then forced to pay compensation to the state when they are discovered.

The United States condemned Kolbaev’s 2021 release, stating that Washington was “deeply concerned by the release of transnational organized crime boss Kamchybek Kolbaev, a convicted murderer whose criminal network engages in drug trafficking, human trafficking, arms trafficking and other dangerous criminal activity.”

At the time Japarov vaguely accused the U.S. of double standards and defended Kolbaev’s release given that the crime he’d been detained for was “illegal enrichment.”

“He didn’t kill anyone,” Japarov said.

In turn, the U.S. upped the reward for bringing Kolbaev to justice to $5 million and explained in further detail his allegedly colorful criminal history, including a 2000 conviction for the attempted murder of “his former crime boss” and the murder of two others, followed by six years in prison before escaping.

None of this had any concrete effect on Kyrgyz authorities at the time. But they’re singing a different tune now.

After Kolbaev’s killing in Bishkek, security head Kamchybek Tashiev – who was opening a new State Committee for National Security building in Tokmok – warned “all those who were close to the crime boss who was liquidated yesterday” that if “anyone tries to raise their head against society or organizes any illegal actions, they will be severely punished according to the law.”

He went on to proclaim, “From now on, there will be no thieves-in-law, no organized crime groups in our country.”

It’s worth noting here that amid Japarov (and Tashiev’s) astronomic rise to power there was much chatter about the duo’s connections to Kyrgyzstan’s criminal underworld, with some positing that their rise would not have been possible without support of such elements. Many pointed to the clever ways that Raimbek Matraimov eluded full justice for his corruption as a possible clue. The Kolbaev situation may be another hint. 

Of course, any certainty in this is nigh impossible to achieve, but in recent news reports Kolbaev was sighted among Bishkek’s political class. Kakus media, an independent Kyrgyz outlet, had reported on September 17 that in attendance at the wedding of former speaker of the Jogorku Kenesh Akhmatbek Keldibekov’s son were a smattering of well-connected figures, from elusive former president Sooronbai Jeenbekov to former customs deputy head Matraimov. Kaktus’ sources claimed that “crime boss Kamchy Kolbaev was present at the wedding, but he left the event after Kamchybek Tashiev arrived.”

Another source told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that Keldibekov, Kolbaev, Matraimov, and another person were questioned by the security services after the wedding. Keldibekov refuted that claim in statements to the media outlet, noting that he was in China for the Asian Games.

Everything is clear as mud, as they say.