Russian mafia boss shot dead in Moscow

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 16 2013 11:46 PM | Updated as of Jan 17 2013 07:46 AM

MOSCOW - One of Russia's biggest mafia bosses nicknamed "Grandpa Hassan" was shot dead Wednesday outside a restaurant in central Moscow, in an apparent contract killing that turned the clock back to the bloody turf wars of the 1990s.

Aslan Usoyan, 75, known by his nickname of "Grandpa Hassan", was killed by a shot from a sniper's rifle as he was exiting the Karetny Dvor restaurant, about 1.5 kilometres (one mile) from the Kremlin.

Some observers feared that the murder of Usoyan would unleash a turf war in the criminal world of Russia and former Soviet republics.

The sniper shot Usoyan once, and the victim was rushed to the hospital, but died on the way, the Investigative Committee said in a statement.

Investigators have launched a murder probe, with Usoyan's "criminal activities" as one of the possible explanations for the murder, it said.

Police surrounded the hospital morgue where Usoyan's body was being held, fearing "provocations", Life News tabloid website said, publishing a gory photograph of the corpse with a bloody face lying on a stretcher.

The sniper also wounded a female bystander who was being treated in a hospital, police said.

A Yezidi Kurd born in Soviet Georgia in the 1930s, Usoyan was one of the remaining mafia old guard and was considered the most influential criminal in the former Soviet Union. He was first convicted when he was 19.

Most of his convictions dealt with weapons and drug possession, and in 1984 he was jailed for 15 years for selling counterfeit gold coins. He was released in 1991, however, just when Russia was in the chaos of the late Soviet perestroika reform.

By the mid 1990s his clan was reportedly one of the most powerful in the region, operating several casinos in Moscow and eventually controlling the crime scene of south Russia, including the Caucasus, which made him especially interested in development projects for the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

Usoyan survived an assassination bid in September 2010 when he was shot in the abdomen in central Moscow, and temporarily handed over business to his two nephews, according to reports.

The tabloid daily Komsomolskaya Pravda in a report on its website dubbed him the "king of the Russian mafia".

Investigators never arrested the would-be assassin behind the previous attack, also a sniper who was hiding on the third floor of a nearby apartment building.

A security source told Interfax that the two shootings were linked. Previously, police sources suspected that Usoyan was targeted by a rival crime boss Tariel Oniani over land, real estate, and leadership roles in the criminal world.

In a sign of Usoyan's colossal influence despite his increasing age, a parliament deputy expressed fear that his murder might trigger unprecedented turf wars and more violence.

"I am sure that a new criminal redistribution will begin now," Russian lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein, who sits on the security committee, wrote on his Twitter blog.

Usoyan was seen as a close ally of Russian mafia kingpin Vyacheslav "Yaponchik" Ivankov who was assassinated in 2009.

His funeral was a lavish affair at one of Moscow's best known cemeteries, and covered by Russian media with the frenzy of a celebrity gala event.

The mafia bosses of the 1990s, known as "thieves in law," ruled the Soviet criminal underworld by their own code of ethics, and became immensely rich with the chaotic post-Soviet privatisation.

Contract killings in business turf wars are much rarer in Moscow now than in the chaotic 1990s but still occur sporadically in the Russian capital.