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Former Kyrgyz PM Detained In Gold-Mine Investigation

Omurbek Babanov (file photo)
Omurbek Babanov (file photo)

Former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov has been detained as part of an investigation into corruption during the development of the Kumtor gold-mine project.

The State Committee for National Security said on May 31 that Babanov was detained on the basis of evidence obtained during the investigation. It did not give any details of the evidence.

The giant Kumtor gold project has been the focus of international attention in recent months after the government moved to temporarily take over operations at the mine -- which is run by Canada's Centerra Gold -- for what President Sadyr Japarov said was a necessary move to remedy environmental and safety violations.

According to a new law approved on May 14, the government can take control for up to three months of any company that operates under a concession agreement in Kyrgyzstan if that firm violates environmental regulations, endangers the local environment or lives of people, or causes other significant damage.

Centerra's Kyrgyz subsidiary, Kumtor Gold Company (KGC), Kyrgyzstan's biggest taxpayer, is the only firm in the former Soviet republic that operates under a concession agreement.

The head of a Kyrgyz state commission investigating alleged wrongdoing at the Kumtor mine said on May 17 that his group concluded that the agreement on giving the mining concession to Centerra Gold must be revoked due to what he called "corruption" and "violations of safety and environmental regulations."

Centerra has called Kyrgyzstan's actions "wrongful and illegal." On May 16, the Canadian firm said it had "initiated binding arbitration to enforce its rights under long-standing investment agreements with the government."

It also accused Kyrgyz law enforcement of intimidation -- including police visits to the homes of several senior KGC managers and a May 15 raid of KGC's office in Bishkek.

Japarov's sudden rise to power in October 2020 after being freed from jail in the midst of a political crisis was particularly bad news for Centerra.

As an opposition politician during the past decade, Japarov had led an unsuccessful bid in parliament and on the streets to nationalize the mine.

He oversaw several chaotic rallies against the company -- including a 2013 rally in which a provincial governor was kidnapped, the basis of Japarov's 2017 arrest and 11-year prison sentence on hostage-taking charges.

Canada, Britain, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have all criticized Kyrgyzstan's moves against Centerra.