Five Held in Tajik Embassy Drugs Scandal

A diplomatic storm has blown up in Central Asia after the Kazak authorities discovered the Tajik embassy chauffeur was using his boss's car to ferry drugs across the republic

Five Held in Tajik Embassy Drugs Scandal

A diplomatic storm has blown up in Central Asia after the Kazak authorities discovered the Tajik embassy chauffeur was using his boss's car to ferry drugs across the republic

The Kazak security services claim to have smashed a major drugs smuggling ring operating out of the Tajik embassy in Almaty. Following a five-month surveillance operation, officers confiscated 72kg of heroin from embassy officials on May 21 - seizing in one fell swoop more than they netted in the whole of 1999.

The bust has been hailed as a major coup in the ongoing war against the drugs cartels which use the Central Asian states as a transit route between Afghanistan, Russia and the West.

Last week's smuggling run was foiled when a National Security Committee, NSC, unit stopped two cars on the road into Almaty. One car, a Toyota Carina, belonged to the Tajik ambassador, Saduladjan Negmatov, the other to the embassy's trade advisor, Tair Nematov.

Both vehicles were searched in the presence of Negmatov and representatives from the Kazak Ministry of Foreign Affairs. NSC officers discovered 62kg of heroin concealed in secret compartments as well as $54,000 in cash and a banker's cheque for £1.26 million ($1.85 million). The street value of the drugs is estimated at $1 million.

Further embarrassment awaited the ambassador back at the embassy when a police search revealed another 10kg of heroin hidden in a garage. Five Tajik nationals were arrested on suspicion of drugs smuggling.

Saduladjan Negmatov explained that he had given written permission for his driver and head of administration, Bakhtiyar Kuralov, to drive the Toyota Carina. He said Kuralov had asked to borrow the car so that he could drive his wife and daughter to Tajikistan.

Negmatov added that he "had absolute faith the investigation would uncover the whole story".

Rakhat Aliev, head of the NSC's Almaty division, said the consignment was due to be handed over to a trade representative in the Tajik embassy. He believes the smuggling ring worked with a network of dealers across Kazakstan. The bulk of the drugs was sold locally, the rest exported to Russia and Western Europe.

"The operation continues," said Aliev. "This is by no means the last consignment."

The Tajik embassy has been under suspicion since January of this year when NSC officers first mounted their surveillance operation. The latest bust comes two years after an embassy chauffeur was arrested when attempting to hand over 1.9kg of heroin to drugs traffickers.

The scale of the Tajik operation will fuel fears that the volume of drugs passing through Central Asia is on the increase. Alma Yesekergenova, head of the UN directorate for drugs control in Kazakstan, said, "Sixty-five per cent of all drugs produced in Afghanistan are transported through the Central Asian states.

"According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 98 per cent of the drugs confiscated on Kazak territory were seized from foreign nationals, mostly Tajiks and Russians. There have also been cases of Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Kazaks working as couriers."

The dramatic growth in drugs trafficking has spurred the Tajik government to take urgent action. Earlier this year, Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov invested a substantial chunk of public funds in an agency to combat drug addiction and drug trafficking. Boasting around 350 staff, the agency is working in close partnership with the UN.

Konstantin Kolpakov, chief of a similar agency in Kazakstan, told IWPR that police seized 54kg of heroin in 1999 - 21kg more than in the previous year. Around 23kg had been confiscated in the first quarter of 2000 but "the recent seizure of 62kg with a street value of more than $1 million tips the scales for the whole of last year".

Kolpakov added, "When we catch couriers with small consignments of drugs, it's usually indicative of an attempt to test out a new supply route but, when we come across such a large amount, that's a sign of a tried and tested operation."

Officers from Interpol have joined the Kazak security services in the ongoing investigation.

Rozlana Taukina is director of IWPR' office in Almaty

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