Moscow’s Khamovnichesky District Court on Tuesday began hearing the case of alleged Georgian thief-in-law Tariel Oniani, who faces up to 22 years in jail on kidnapping and extortion charges.

Prosecutors say Oniani, who was arrested in June, kidnapped Georgian-born businessman Johnny Manadze and was trying to extort $500,000 from his relatives to secure his release.

Oniani, 51, is being tried under his original surname, Mulukhov. He and two co-defendants — Georgian-born Sergei Abutidzde, 43, and Alexei Zubarev, a 23-year-old Muscovite — are accused of kidnapping Manadze in March 2009.

They allegedly grabbed him from Smolenskaya Ploshchad, took him to a restaurant and — on Oniani’s orders — beat him with a baseball bat. Prosecutors say the suspects kept Manadze locked up in a specially rented apartment for three days until his family paid $218,000 of the ransom.

If convicted on both the kidnapping and extortion charges, Oniani could face up to 22 years in prison.  He pleaded not guilty Tuesday, saying he “does not admit that a crime took place,” Interfax reported.  Manadze, who is under state protection, was listening in by audio feed, RIA-Novosti reported.

Oniani is among the most notorious thieves-in-law from Georgia and is said to have extensive ties with members of the country’s political and business elite. Like many reputed Georgian mobsters with ties to Russian organized crime, Oniani was forced to flee after President Mikheil Saakashvili declared war on Georgia’s criminal world in 2004.

Oniani’s name has been linked in the press to the killing of another notorious underworld figure, Vyacheslav Ivankov, or Yaponchik, who died in October after being gunned down by a sniper in July.

The Russian magazine Ogonyok published what it said was a letter from Oniani’s biggest rival, reputed thief-in-law Aslan Usoyan, or Ded Khasan, in which he said the criminal world should punish Oniani for Yaponchik’s killing.

But Yevgeny Vyshenkov, a former police investigator and deputy head of the Agency of Journalistic Investigations, told The Moscow Times that he did not believe that the letter was authentic, saying it could have been part of a police operation to encourage mobsters to fight among themselves.

“If Oniani and Ded Khasan wanted to resolve some kind of conflict, they wouldn’t act through third parties,” he said.

Spanish prosecutors have repeatedly asked Russia to extradite Oniani on charges of money laundering and organizing a criminal gang. Russian law does not allow the extradition of its citizens, but Oniani only has Georgian citizenship, Russian officials have said.

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