Russian authorities raided an underground casino in the very centre of Moscow this week, as part of a drive to crack down on illegal gambling dens in the country. Gambling has been banned in Russia for the past two years, and in recent months there has been a wave of raids on underground casinos, and arrests of the officials who provided them with cover.
Russian media showed footage of the aftermath of this week's raid, with gaming tables overturned and decks of cards left out. The casino was in an apartment that had been refurbished with luxury fittings, and was hidden behind several locked, coded doors. Police said they believed the casino had previously operated in a central Moscow hotel, and had moved to the apartment when the gambling ban came in.
Until two years ago, there were casinos and slot-machine halls operating all over Moscow. The Novy Arbat thoroughfare was lined with gaudy casinos that were frequented by high rollers, while lowlier Muscovites whiled away hours feeding coins into slot machines in the hope of a big win. That ended in summer 2009, withthe ban.
The idea was that all gambling in Russia would move to four specially designated zones, spread across the country, each of which was supposed to become a mini Las Vegas. However, the zones are located away from big cities, and companies have been reluctant to invest in them.
Instead, it appears that businessmen found it easier and more profitable to keep the old casinos running in new, secret locations. In the past months, a number of top ranking officials in the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor's Office have been arrested for providing cover to these illegal gambling operations, many of which had been relocated to small towns outside Moscow.
Also arrested was Briton Darren Keane, who worked for casino company Storm International. Mr Keane's company had run a series of casinos in Moscow and across the former Soviet Union, including the Shangri-La, a garish, enormous casino in the central Pushkin Square, which was one of the best known casinos in the Russian capital before the ban came into place.
Mr Keane, 43, was arrested in June and has been held in a pre-trial detention centre in Moscow. Earlier this week he was released but has been placed under house arrest. He faces up to five years in jail if found guilty.
As is often the case in Russian "clean-up" operations, it is unclear whether the recent spate of casino raids and high-level arrests is a genuine attempt to stamp out illegal gambling, or simply a settling of scores among different interest groups within the authorities.
The tabloid press has been awash with stories of avarice among civil servants and prosecutors, who allegedly demanded expensive watches, exotic holidays and cash payments from casino operators.