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Russia’s chief hitman or chief philanthropist?

23 February 2024
Illustration: Tamar Shvelidze/OC Media

Mention Aslan ‘Jacko’ Gagiyev’s name and accounts of the South Ossetian gang leader will vary wildly — a murderer, philanthropist, principled brigand, or secret services assassin. And despite the trail of bodies he left in his wake, some, including Gagiyev himself, insist his crimes were all for the greater good.

The man in the ‘aquarium’ — a small cage surrounded by bulletproof glass in which the defendant stands — smiles and jokes. Between court sessions, he talks to those present in the room. He knows the journalists by name. If someone new appears amongst them, he calls them over and gets acquainted with them. His name is Aslan Gagiyev. He is ‘Russia’s chief assassin’. 

In September 2023, Rostov-on-Don’s military court sentenced Gagiyev to life in prison. He was found guilty of a number of crimes, including creating and running a gang that killed at least 60 people, amongst them politicians, businesspeople, and law enforcement officers. The court found Gagiyev guilty of direct involvement in the murders of six people. Gagiyev’s lawyers have appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court in Moscow.

About 30 friends and relatives came to the former gang leader’s sentencing. Among them were many of his children, most of whom Gagiyev had fathered out of wedlock. Gagiyev claimed at trial that he had 21 children in total.

‘Whatever happens, you remain my children, listen to your mother and grandmother, study well and do sports!’, Gagiyev declared after the verdict was announced.

But despite his conviction, his legacy remains contentious. His supporters continue to claim that Gagiyev was a benevolent figure, responsible for more good than bad — an Ossetian Robin Hood.

‘The man I killed was a bastard’

Gagiyev’s reputation verges on legendary in both his native South Ossetia and in Russia. His renown is related in part to his apparent connections to power — his gang’s murders of politicians, businesspeople, and police — and in part to his aptitude for self-promotion. 

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Many know Gagiyev as ‘Jacko’, a nickname taken from a novel by Georgian writer Mikhail Javakhishvili. In Jacko’s Dispossessed, the titular character is an Ossetian villager who rids a naive Georgian nobleman of all that belongs to him — his possessions, his land, and finally his wife. Gagiyev himself has claimed that police coined the nickname for him to make him appear ‘criminal’.

Gagiyev was born in South Ossetia and has maintained ties with both the Russian republic of North Ossetia and his birthplace, while spending most of his life living in Moscow and Vienna. 

Many key events in both North and South Ossetia are reported to have taken place with his participation. Gagiyev has claimed that he took part in Russia’s five-day war against Georgia in 2008 and helped rescue hostages from the Beslan school siege in 2004. Members of his gang have been found guilty of assassinating a number of high-ranking officials and law enforcement officers, including Vladikavkaz Mayor Vitaly Karayev and North Ossetian Deputy Prime Minister Kazbek Pagiyev.

At its height, his gang was purported to include around 60 people, most of whom are now serving lengthy sentences. 

But Gagiyev himself has admitted to the murder of only one person — North Ossetia-Alania’s Deputy Prime Minister Kazbek Pagiyev.

He alleged that the 2008 murder was ordered by Russian MP Zurab Makiyev Gayozovich and ‘his accomplices’: Sergei Takoyev, who took over Pagiyev’s post, and North Ossetian politician Alexander Totoonov. 

‘But I have nothing bad against them. This is their life, and [Pagiyev] is a bastard’, added Gagiyev. ‘That’s why I explain that [Makiyev] ordered this murder, and it was done for his sake and at his request.’

Makiyev, however, denied that he knew Gagiyev, and the investigators claimed to have failed to confirm Gagiyev’s assertions.

South Ossetia’s ‘big brother’

Gagiyev’s gang killed in different ways, as outlined in the trials of its members. Sometimes their victims were shot, as in the case of Pagiyev and Karayev, sometimes strangled with a plastic bag, as with some former members of the gang, sometimes tortured to death, in the case of Moscow businessman Oleg Novoselsky.

But despite his implication in such violent crimes, Gagiyev has managed to build a reputation not far off that of an action-movie hero, frustrating those who see him as nothing but a repulsively violent criminal. 

In part, this can be attributed to his charisma. Even to this day, when he appears in court, his smile and easy rapport with those around him mean that journalists sometimes take his words at face value, suspending their standard scepticism. 

Many of his gang have said in court that they were sure they were working for Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), because they were required to take out only ‘bad’ people who were involved in crimes such as corruption and kidnapping. 

For example, Gagiyev suggested that the deaths of Taimuraz Kadzayev, Vitaly Laliyev, and brothers Alan and Aslan Torchinov, which he denies involvement in, were connected to their having ‘kidnapped children’. 

‘Based on what I heard, I need to be given an award for saving the Ossetian people from child abductors, but they want to give me a life sentence’, said Gagiyev. 

However, others have suggested that Gagiyev killed the Torchinovs over a financial dispute.

Members of his gang also stated in court that they were well looked after, with their rent and food taken care of alongside their income — they called themselves a ‘family’, each other — ‘brothers’, and Gagiyev himself — their ‘big brother’, a name by which he became known in South Ossetia. 

Ties to Putin, the mafia, and big politics

Where Jacko initially got his money from remains unclear to this day, but the federal budget soon became the main sponsor of his gang’s murders — open databases show that through front men, Gagiyev was in fact in charge of the state-owned Financial Leasing Company in 2008.

And Gagiyev claims to have had patrons in Russia’s highest ranks. 

In a September 2023 interview, Gagiyev told iStories that in the early 1990s, he worked for Roman Tsepov, believed to be one of the main criminal authorities in Saint Petersburg at the time. 

Tsepov’s company ‘Baltic-Eskort’ is known to have provided security services to Vladimir Putin, who was then Saint Petersburg’s vice mayor. Viktor Zolotov, now the head of Russia’s National Guard, Rosgvardiya, also worked in the same firm. Gagiyev mentioned Zolotov’s name many times during questioning in court, notably claiming that it was ‘through Vitya’ that he transferred money to Putin every month.

However, while all this could potentially be written off as Gagiyev’s fantasy, Gagiyev’s ties with Ilya Traber, known as the ‘economist’ of the Tambov organised crime group and a close friend of Putin, are substantiated. 

Gagiyev’s business ventures included a 25% share in shipyards in east Germany, under the name of Sergei Morozov — an identity Gagiyev often used and had a passport under, which he was using when arrested by the Austrian authorities. 

His involvement in the shipyards included a joint venture with a shipyard in Russia, which was reportedly controlled by Traber in the personal interests of Vladimir Putin.

Gagiyev also claims to have been directly involved in South Ossetian politics, stating at his trial that he helped Anatoly Bibilov win the presidency in 2017. A former deputy head of South Ossetia’s presidential administration stated that Gagiyev had ‘involved influential friends from Moscow’. 

Gagiyev later said he regretted doing so.

‘I want to apologise for bringing a moron to power. I took this current president, this “Cheburashka” [a Soviet cartoon figure] by the ears and brought him to the bench, sure that he was a decent person. I want to apologise to my people for that, he is a complete scoundrel’, said Gagiyev. 

A number of people who had been part of Bibilov’s election headquarters confirmed to OC Media that they had indeed turned to Aslan Gagiyev for help as one of the most influential people in South Ossetia.

‘It was clear then that Bibilov could not win the election, and help was needed, we needed someone to influence the situation from the outside’, said one of the headquarters’ employees. ‘Gagiyev was not familiar with him before that.’ They added that while Gagiyev hesitated for a long time, he eventually decided to help.

Immediately after Gagiyev’s claim, Bibilov’s press service denied any ties.

‘It is clear that Gagiyev, who faces life imprisonment on charges of numerous serious crimes, is trying to get some attention from the media and society’, a spokesperson said.

‘Freedom for Gagiyev’

When Gagiyev began to face issues in Russia — a number of gang members were arrested in 2012 and testified against him — he left the country, moving to Vienna. 

‘I was taken out of Russia by the head of the FSB’s ninth service’, said Gagiyev, referring to its internal security department, in a testimony given to an Austrian court in relation to an Interpol warrant for his arrest on charges of murder. ‘He said there was nothing he could do to help me. He said: “There is a solution”. He gave me $10,000 and decided that was the only way in which he could help me.’  

Gagiyev tried to avoid his deportation from Austria, which was almost guaranteed to be followed by a life sentence in Russia. His attempts took various forms, from declaring that he was so afraid of flying that he would not survive the flight to Russia, to launching a ‘Freedom for Gagiyev’ campaign, made up of short videos praising him that were shared in North and South Ossetia. 

Among those who appealed to the Austrian authorities not to deport Gagiyev was the caretaker of the City of Angels cemetery in Beslan, North Ossetia, the late Kaspolat Ramonov. He claimed that it was Aslan Gagiyev’s money that had built the cemetery.

‘Aslan is a very kind man. After the terrorist attack at the school, he sent children and women for treatment, financed all this’, Ramonov said in 2017. Ramonov’s daughter was among those killed in the attack.

‘In 2004, Aslan sent money to build the City of Angels, where the victims of the terrorist attack were buried. [He sent] $2.5 million, which was plundered because our corruption is at such a level.’

Kaspolat Ramonov is highly respected in North Ossetia, with one of the six Beslan hostages OC Media spoke to stating that ‘such a person would never lie’. However, none were able to confirm that the cemetery was built with Gagiyev’s money, nor could anyone recall specific assistance he provided to the hostages.

Gagiyev’s supporters also claimed that the money transferred by Gagiyev ‘was stolen by officials’. This is actively denied by representatives of the Mothers of Beslan, a committee that has been involved in helping former Beslan hostages for 19 years.

‘If it were true, the information that the money did not reach the victims would have surfaced earlier, and not on the eve of Gagiyev’s extradition. But it’s only appeared now’, said the committee’s co-chair, Aneta Gadiyeva. ‘In our opinion, people are just despicably using our grief to prevent the punishment of a man who, according to the investigation, is guilty of a huge number of crimes.’

She also denied Gagiyev’s claims that he took part in the operation to rescue hostages from the Beslan school.

‘No one saw him during the hostage rescue either. If he had really participated in the rescue, with his manipulative skills he would have provided confirmation of his words. But no one saw that he was rescuing [people]. And such a colourful figure would definitely have been noticed by someone’, claims Gadiyeva.

Others, however, confirm that Gagiyev had helped them or their families. A man named Soslan Dzhioyev stated that Gagiyev had helped his mother when she was severely ill.

‘I don’t even know how it all happened, I don’t know him personally’, Dzhioyev told OC Media. ‘We had common acquaintances, and they asked for it. I did not even hold this money in my hands. I only found out later that it was Gagiyev who provided the money. Mum was bought very expensive medication at the time. Even if Gagiyev killed someone, he saved so many people that he has long since atoned for all his sins’.

‘Leave him alone, let the man live in peace.’

And Dzhioyev is far from alone. Hundreds of comments can be found online expressing similar support for Gagiyev. Some refer to him as Robin Hood, stating that he has always stood up for justice, and always supported North and South Ossetia. 

But there are just as many who believe that even life imprisonment is too lenient a sentence. 

‘I am not God or even a judge in a robe to say whether his punishment was just or not’, says the son of one of the alleged victims of Aslan Gagiyev’s gang who asked to remain anonymous. At the time of the murder, he was a child. 

‘My father was an honest man, and when people say now that Gagiyev allegedly killed only bad people, I want to tell them all: here is at least one person who was good, and he is dead now’, he says. ‘Life will put everything in its place.’

 For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

Read in Armenian on CivilNet
Read in Russian on SOVA.News.