A court case against six men in Lüneburg is casting hazy light on the little known “thieves in law,” a professional criminal network from the former Soviet Union.
It follows an eight-year investigation that prosecutors have likened to a puzzle with a million pieces. The trial began in February 2015 and just adjourned for the summer, but is expected to run through December 2017. It’s being heavily secured throughout proceedings by armed police and extra precautionary measures.
Few are surprised at the silence of the men in the dock. They are believed to be members of the “thieves in law,” an international criminal gang with its own laws, culture and slang, and hierarchies that are little known.
It has its roots in the Soviet gulags where a hierarchy of prisoners took shape as an underground organization against the system. The “Vory v Zakone” is a group with a code of honor whereby members share common funds, receive titles and are recognized by their tattoos. Mafia members swear not to earn money through work, never betraying the organization, and keeping silent when questioned by the police.
Prosecutors say the thieves in law is a modern crime network with a military-style hierarchy.
Political scientists have called the grouping the “illegitimate child of the criminal Soviet system,” in the words of Paul Erich Roth.
The organization is still admired in Georgia and Russia, its bosses seen as pop stars and celebrated in plays and songs. On his death in 2012, one of the senior members of the organization received a ceremonial burial in Moscow.
Prosecutors say the “thieves in law” is a modern crime network with a military-style hierarchy. They say it operates globally, with branches in Chechnya, Russia, Spain, the United States, Turkey, Greece and the Arab Emirates. According to Interpol, the network is worth €100 billion.
The German prosecutors said one of the men in the Lüneburg court is responsible for setting up a criminal clan in northeastern Germany. Jörg Ziercke, who heads Germany’s federal criminal police office, said he believed the accused created a form of criminal department store, where any crime can be purchased, from theft through fraud and bribery.
The case opened to heavy security, the court flanked by 18 armed policemen and armored vehicles in case of an attempt to rescue or kill the accused by rival gangs or their own.
At the beginning of the case in Lüneburg, prosecutors were sure they had a clear cut case against six men for being members of a Russian-Georgian mafia and controlling particular areas of Germany. Additional charges include fraud, counterfeiting and creating a criminal organization. The main man accused was once filmed during questioning by Russia’s organized crime police force during an arrest in Moscow, and acknowledged that he had belonged to the “thieves in law” since 1975.
But by the time summer break arrived, the case was turning out to be harder to prove. The more exhausted the prosecutors seemed, the more relaxed the men on trial appeared. Some of the charges are unspectacular: setting up a letter box firm, failing to pay for forklift trucks and rental cars, and not paying for container loads of onions from Spain and oranges from Egypt.
Part of the trouble, according to the prosecution, is it is widely known that the police don’t mount major operations for minor crimes and the prosecutors believe that those accused stick to minor offenses.
The team of prosecutors had worked through 600,000 hours of recordings of telephone calls with confusing nicknames and references, trying to understand the organized Russian-Georgian gang they suspect controls some areas of Germany, in a case some have begun to nickname the “million-euro grave.” But it remains to be seen if their work will pay off.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org