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Kyrgyzstan's Former Kingmaker Matraimov Brought Home As Enemy Of The State

Raimbek Matraimov is wanted for allegedly plotting to take out members of President Sadyr Japarov's government using assassins from Azerbaijan.
Raimbek Matraimov is wanted for allegedly plotting to take out members of President Sadyr Japarov's government using assassins from Azerbaijan.

The former customs official, the kingmaker, the political "wallet" -- one of Kyrgyzstan's most powerful and infamous sons?

The U.S.-sanctioned "corrupt actor" who was rumored to have bought elections, parliaments, and presidents?

The man who was convicted of smuggling and money-laundering operations first uncovered by journalists, only to walk from the courtroom a free man?

The man whose charitable foundation only last year finished building the new headquarters for the country's official Islamic Muftiate?

The man whose talent for accruing unexplained riches earned him the moniker "Raim Million"?

On March 26, that same 52-year-old man was brought back from Baku to his homeland, where he is wanted for allegedly plotting to take out members of President Sadyr Japarov's government using assassins from Azerbaijan.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) confirmed the successful extradition of Raimbek Matraimov and three of his brothers on March 27, noting that Matraimov was being held on charges of unlawful deprivation of liberty and money laundering.

How that relates to the alleged assassination plot is unclear.

But photos and videos seemingly taken of Matraimov during the flight and after landing in Bishkek appear to suggest the government's intention is to lower this former high-flier to depths of humiliation that would have seemed unimaginable just months ago.

And this time, it would appear real jail time awaits him.

Just three days earlier, the UKMK had given notice of the arrest of five citizens of Azerbaijan in connection with the purported conspiracy, also releasing footage of the men being arrested.

The motive for the conspiracy, the UKMK said, was to eliminate the Kyrgyz administration due to its pursuit of "a policy of active struggle against organized crime groups that influence the entire post-Soviet space."

Kyrgyz police arrest men in connection with Matraimov on March 23.
Kyrgyz police arrest men in connection with Matraimov on March 23.

Claiming that Matraimov's links to the supposed criminal group and apparent basing in Baku had emerged during the course of the investigation, the UKMK said that "a letter [for Matraimov's] arrest was sent to the Azerbaijani side."

Azerbaijan, like Kyrgyzstan a member of the Organization of Turkic States, released a vague statement on the affair on March 26 saying four Kyrgyz citizens "had been identified" and were "transferred to the judiciary."

A plane reportedly carrying Matraimov to Kyrgyzstan arrived later that day at the Bishkek airport where some passengers were put in a van that drove to the capital, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported from the airport.

A video clip shared by the private news outlet Kaktus Media, meanwhile, appeared to show Matraimov having his head held by machine gun-wielding officers of the law as he gave a brief interview to state media.

Fall From High

Kyrgyz authorities first announced they had put out a warrant for Matraimov's arrest last fall, before any reports of assassination plots.

In November, powerful UKMK chief Kamchybek Tashiev said the confiscation of Matraimov's properties in Kyrgyzstan was under way and accused the ex-official of "forming a criminal group" with another notorious figure, criminal kingpin Kamchybek Kolbaev.

The comment appeared to be quite ominous for Matraimov.

Just a few weeks before Tashiev spoke, Kolbaev had been gunned down by UKMK officers in broad daylight in central Bishkek, kicking off a campaign against organized crime figures across the country.

ALSO READ: Investigation: The Matraimov Kingdom

Kamchybek Kolbaev (right) and Raimbek Matraimov
Kamchybek Kolbaev (right) and Raimbek Matraimov

Both Kolbaev and Matraimov were the subject of U.S. government sanctions -- Matraimov since 2020 under the Global Magnitsky Act and Kolbaev since 2012 under the Kingpin Act.

Yet in Kyrgyzstan, they had until recently enjoyed impunity, a fact underscored by the highly symbolic stints that both men spent in jail in the first year of the Japarov and Tashiev regime -- a lenience not afforded to the administration's other perceived rivals.

Rumors of a business relationship between Matraimov and Kolbaev were long-standing and received substance in several RFE/RL media investigations carried out in partnership with the Kyrgyz media outlet Kloop and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

A key whistleblower for those investigations indicated that Kolbaev had offered protection and muscle for Matraimov, who acted as the gatekeeper of a long-term smuggling enterprise that saw hundreds of millions of dollars sent out of Kyrgyzstan and laundered into real estate and other investments.

Things didn't end well for that money-launderer-turned informer.

But as media analyst Asel Sooronbaeva pointed out in an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Matraimov enjoyed impunity at the time these investigations were published.

"The first article about Raimbek Matraimov's involvement in corruption, if I'm not mistaken, was published back in 2017. Only journalists and activists demanded that he be brought to justice. Politicians were on good terms with him," she said.

That assertion is backed up by videos and photographs of Matraimov, Kolbaev, and their relatives freely socializing with their counterparts in the political establishment.

One widely circulated photograph from 2022 showed sons of the duo posing for a photograph with Japarov's son Rustam and former Ultimate Fighting Championship star Khabib Nurmagomedov.

But Japarov and Tashiev have centralized power in ruthless fashion since they first arrived in 2020, meaning less space for the kind of backroom powerbrokers that once gave shape to Kyrgyzstan's political scene.

And that change is certainly being felt in the parliament, where Matraimov used to have plenty of friends.

Tune Changers

Take now-former lawmaker Shailoobek Atazov, who this month had his parliamentary seat stripped from him by an administrative court in Bishkek, for instance.

Days after the court's ruling, an indignant Atazov accused Prosecutor-General Kurmankul Zulushev of hypocrisy in an impassioned speech.

Shailoobek Atazov
Shailoobek Atazov

"You say that [I] have connections with Matraimov. Dear Kyrgyz, tell me a politician who doesn't have a relationship with Matraimov? [...] Prosecutor-General Zulushev, you were [Matraimov's] blood brother," complained Atazov, who came to fame after heading a sports club owned by the Matraimovs.

"At your birthday, while the meat was being served, you said: ‘Nobody eat until my friend Raim arrives.' You have been prosecutor-general for three years. If [Matraimov] is a major criminal, why did you not notice it?"

Atazov was one of several politicians shamed for their association with Matraimov in programming aired by Region TV -- a television channel closely associated with Tashiev -- in February.

Nadira Narmatova, a lawmaker best known as the author of a Russian-style law on NGOs, was another.

She argued that if knowing Matraimov was a crime, "parliament should disband because 99 percent of lawmakers know Matraimov."

Members of the Kyrgyz parliament with reported close ties to Matraimov
Members of the Kyrgyz parliament with reported close ties to Matraimov

Narmatova has showed no sign of giving up her seat, but three others mentioned by Region TV did.

Iskender Matraimov, Nurlan Rajabaliev, and Abdybahab Boronbaev quit parliament soon after the program aired.

Iskender Matraimov, Raim's older brother, had in the past vociferously defended his sibling from what he called attacks from the media.

In 2019, he said that he had "raised, guided, and married off" Raim after their father, Ismail Matraimov, died.

"The fact that deputies or ministers pay visits to us is not because of him, as everyone writes, but out of respect for me. I make these invitations," he said. "[So] you should rather write about me."

But on February 16, after authorities seized a home apparently belonging to Raimbek Matraimov in the southern city of Osh and dozens of properties in the family's hometown of Kara-Suu, the elder Matraimov struck a somewhat less defensive tone.

"By law, upon reaching the age of 18, parents are not responsible for their child. The brother is also not responsible for the younger brother.... I will answer for myself," Iskender Matraimov said, claiming the seized Osh property was an inheritance from their mother.

The Saimati Precedent

The biggest Matraimov tune-changer of all? Arguably Tashiev himself.

In 2019, when Tashiev was very much a politician on the outside looking in, he called Matraimov a "simple, flexible guy" in an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and questioned whether RFE/RL journalists had been correct to "make a monster" out of him.

"For what purpose did you, [RFE/RL] journalists, conduct this investigation? Is this done to expose government corruption or to smear one person?" Tashiev asked.

But bonhomie dies in the battle for political supremacy.

And that is the context in which many observers see the actions of Tashiev's UKMK, from the recent crackdown on criminal networks to the case of the alleged assassination plot.

This is perhaps fair given that nothing about the authoritarian 3 1/2 year reign of Japarov and Tashiev has suggested a high regard for the rule of law.

At the same time, though, it is not the first time either Matraimov or his associates have fallen under suspicion of a crime worse than corruption.

The contract-style killing in Istanbul of Aierken Saimaiti, a self-confessed money launderer who acted as the main whistleblower for RFE/RL's 2019 investigation, triggered similar accusations -- albeit from the public rather than the state.

Aierken Saimaiti
Aierken Saimaiti

Prior to his death in November of that year, Saimaiti had provided reporters with bank records and internal ledgers detailing how he earlier transferred hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan in what he claimed was a massive money-laundering operation involving Kyrgyz customs officials.

Police in Turkey, an ally of Kyrgyzstan, arrested three people on suspicion of involvement in the slaying and attributed the motivation for the killing as a religious one.

But Saimaiti had previously told journalists he feared he was being targeted by participants in the smuggling and money-laundering scheme that he had once been a part of. The Matraimovs denied any link to the killing.

Matraimov was in 2021 convicted by a Kyrgyz court in connection with the misdeeds that the media investigation exposed, although he spent virtually no time in jail in lieu of what authorities claimed was a repayment of 2 billion soms (nearly $24 million at the rates of the time) in damages to the state.

The gentle nature of his arrest that time empowered cynics who believed Matraimov and his largesse could survive any revolution -- Kyrgyzstan has had three in just over three decades of independence -- or change of leader.

This time the gloves look to be off.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

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