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House Arrest Ordered For Kyrgyzstan's Powerful Oligarch Raimbek Matraimov

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Raimbek Matraimov (left) is shown as he was detained in Bishkek on October 20.

BISHKEK -- A Bishkek district court judge has ordered that Raimbek Matraimov, the powerful former deputy chief of the customs service, be placed under house arrest.

Kyrgyz authorities detained Matraimov, an ally of former President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, earlier on October 20 as part of a corruption investigation that could help solidify acting President Sadyr Japarov's grip on power.

The Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said in a statement that Matraimov, who was implicated earlier this year in a high-profile journalistic investigation revealing a corruption scheme involving hundreds of millions of dollars transferred out of the country, had been placed under custody.

Raimbek Matraimov
Raimbek Matraimov

"Matraimov has been detained as part of a pretrial investigation into corruption in customs authorities," the UKMK said, noting it had established that Matraimov and others were part of "a corruption scheme aimed at extracting shadow income during customs administration, as a result of which the state budget suffered damage on an especially large scale."

The UKMK also said that Matraimov had agreed to pay about 2 billion soms ($24.7) million in damages to the state, and that 80 million soms ($1 million) had already been transferred to its account, according to TASS.

Matraimov is one of three brothers from what is rumored to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Kyrgyzstan. He was a key financial backer for political parties and presidents, including Jeenbekov and the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party, which dominated October 4 parliamentary elections along with a party called Birimdik, which listed Jeenbekov's brother among its ranks.

Protesters, angry at evidence of vote-buying and other improprieties during the vote, seized government buildings days after results were announced, prompting officials to annul the balloting and Jeenbekov to step down.

Acting President Sadyr Japarov
Acting President Sadyr Japarov

In the resulting power vacuum, Japarov, a former nationalist lawmaker and convicted kidnapper who was freed from prison when a mob stormed a Bishkek prison during the protests, was elected prime minister by parliament and then had the presidential powers transferred to him when Jeenbekov left office.

One of Japarov's public pledges after he obtained presidential powers was to fight corruption and support and protect investigative journalists. At the time, Japarov also expressed concerns about Matraimov's whereabouts, saying that he might have fled the country.

The UKMK said the scheme it was investigating began in 2016, when Matraimov was still in his post. On October 19, the UKMK's press service told RFE/RL that the investigation had identified 40 persons who are suspected in taking part in the corruption schemes.

Last year, a joint investigation by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop, implicated Matraimov in a corruption scheme involving the transfer of funds out of the country by Chinese-born Uyghur businessman Aierken Saimaiti, who was assassinated in Istanbul in November 2019.

SPECIAL REPORT: The Matraimov Kingdom

Prior to his killing, Saimaiti provided a trove of financial records to reporters showing how he moved money out of Kyrgyzstan via murky wire transfers and cash couriers over the course of several years.

Matraimov and his family have denied any links to Saimaiti or corruption in the Kyrgyz customs service, and filed a libel suit over the investigation.

Earlier in June, the UKMK claimed reporters with RFE/RL had received money from Saimaiti, an allegation RFE/RL strongly rejected.

A reporter for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, received death threats in connection with the publication of the information.

Separately on October 20, Bishkek Mayor Aziz Surakmatov stepped down from his post. Before the announcement, Surakmatov appointed Nariman Tuleev as his first deputy.

Many in Kyrgyzstan believe that Tuleev, who was arrested in September 2010 and three years later sentenced to 10 years in prison on corruption charges, may replace Surakmatov.

Tuleev served as Bishkek mayor between 2008 and 2010, when the country was led by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was toppled by violent anti-government protests in 2010 that claimed the lives of almost 100 protesters.

Tuleev was granted early release in May 2016.

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