WASHINGTON, February 8 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – A US federal court in New York City on Friday sentenced an alleged member of the notorious fraternity of Eurasian crime bosses known as “thieves-in-law” to three years in prison after he pleaded guilty to racketeering charges.
Armen Kazarian, 47, was handed a 37-month sentence for conspiracy to commit racketeering as part of an Armenian-American crime group that US authorities say was behind the largest fraud ever committed against the US federal health insurance program Medicare.
Preet Bharara, the US District Attorney for the Southern District of New York, praised the sentence as a warning to “international mobsters” trying to operate in the United States.
“Armen Kazarian sat at the top of a criminal organization, and now he will sit in a jail cell for a long time,” Bharara said in a statement Friday. “International mobsters who think they can export their criminal enterprises to the United States and target our government programs and our citizens are in for a rude awakening—they will face US justice and be made to answer for their crimes.”
Kazarian has been in custody since October 2010, and his lawyer Mark Geragos told RIA Novosti on Friday that his client will be out of prison later this year because of the time he’s already served.
Kazarian, an ethnic Armenian nicknamed “Pzo,” is only the second purported thief-in-law known to have been convicted of a crime in the United States, and US authorities say he is the first to have been convicted on racketeering charges.
Thieves-in-law, known in Russian as “vory v zakone,” constitute a storied criminal caste that took root in the Soviet prison system. Famous for colorful nicknames, elaborate tattoos and unparalleled authority across the Eurasian criminal landscape, they are widely seen as analogous to Italian mafia dons.
Kazarian scooped up by US authorities in 2010 along with 40 other suspects, most of whom were Armenian-Americans, charged with trying to defraud Medicare to the tune of $100 million.
Kazarian’s defense lawyers called authorities’ attempts to link their defendant to the crime shaky, and the alleged crime boss eventually pleaded guilty in 2011 to conspiracy to commit racketeering as part of what prosecutors called the “Mirzoyan-Terdjanian Organization,” an alleged crime group that US authorities say was behind the alleged Medicare scam.
US prosecutors accuse the group in a range of criminal activity, including money laundering, extortion, smuggling, identity theft, trafficking in contraband cigarettes, and distributing counterfeit or stolen Viagra, the erectile dysfunction drug.
Thieves-in-law are widely seen as arbiters among competing criminal groups operating in the former Soviet Union, and Kazarian’s indictment includes an account of one incident in which he allegedly played just such a role.
According to US investigators, he traveled to New York to assist an associate whose friend had fallen into hot water with “a promoter of an overseas investment fraud scheme” over a $200,000 debt.
After speaking with another “thief-in-law” representing the promoter, Kazarian announced that the debt “would be erased,” the indictment alleges.
The indictment also suggests Kazarian was serious about ensuring that he was treated with a certain level of respect given his status. In August 2010, federal investigators alleged, he and an associate “threatened to sodomize and kill an associate who had failed to show proper respect to Kazarian by repeatedly calling Kazarian while drunk.”
Russian media reports have linked Kazarian to notorious Russia-based thief-in-law Aslan Usoyan, who was shot dead by a sniper in central Moscow last month.
But organized crime experts say there is little evidence that Kazarian was working with Usoyan, who was known by the nickname “Gramps Khasan.”
The only other thief-in-law known to have been convicted of a crime in the United States was Vyacheslav Ivankov, a convicted Soviet felon who was known as “Yaponchik,” or “Little Japanese,” for his vaguely Asiatic visage.
Ivankov was arrested by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in 1995 and convicted of trying to extort several million dollars from two Russian-speaking businessmen in New York City.
In 2004 he was sent back to Russia, where he was acquitted of murder and lived for several years before he was shot by a sniper while leaving a Moscow restaurant in July 2009. He died of injuries sustained in the attack three months later.