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Kyrgyz Powerbroker Matraimov Released From Custody, Case Closed

Raimbek Matraimov (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Raimbek Matraimov, the controversial former deputy chief of the Kyrgyz Customs Service who was placed on the U.S. Magnitsky sanctions list for his involvement in the illegal funneling of hundreds of millions of dollars abroad, has been released from custody and the investigation has been closed.

The State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said on April 15 that the money-laundering probe against Matraimov was stopped after investigators had not found any cash or real estate belonging to Matraimov or members of his family abroad.

When Matraimov was rearrested in February, the UKMK said he was held as a suspect for laundering money through the purchase of property in China, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Arab Emirates.

A Bishkek court in February ordered pretrial custody for Matraimov in connection with the corruption charges after hundreds of Kyrgyz protested a previous ruling mitigating a sentence after a guilty plea to no jail time and fines of just a few thousand dollars.

The court had justified the mitigated sentence by saying that Matraimov had paid back around $24 million that disappeared through schemes that he oversaw.

That decision was based on an economic-amnesty law passed in December 2020 that allows individuals who obtained financial assets through illegal means to avoid prosecution by turning the assets over to the State Treasury.

The idea of an economic amnesty was announced in October by Sadyr Japarov, then-acting Kyrgyz president, just a day after Matraimov was detained and placed under house arrest.

Japarov has since been elected president on a pledge to stamp out graft and enact reforms. Japarov also championed a new constitution -- approved by voters earlier this month -- that expands the power of the president.

Critics say the amnesty legislation was proposed and hastily prepared by lawmakers to allow Matraimov and others to avoid conviction for corruption, while the constitutional changes create an authoritarian system and concentrate too much power in the hands of the president..

In June 2019 an investigation by RFE/RL, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Kloop implicated Matraimov in a corruption scheme involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan by Chinese-born Uyghur businessman Aierken Saimaiti, who was subsequently assassinated in Istanbul in November 2019.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the estimated $700 million scheme involved a company controlled by Matraimov bribing officials to skirt customs fees and regulations, as well as engaging in money laundering, "allowing for maximum profits."

A U.S. report on human rights around the world, released in March, spotlighted threats to freedom of expression and a free press in Kyrgyzstan.

In a section on respect for civil liberties, including freedom of the press, the State Department noted threats to journalists involved in that report, which implicated Matraimov.

In January, the 49-year-old Matraimov changed his last name to Ismailov, while his wife, Uulkan Turgunova, changed her family name to Sulaimanova.

The changed names, confirmed to RFE/RL by a spokesperson for Kyrgyzstan's state registration service, were seen as an attempt to evade the U.S.- imposed sanctions.

There have been no official statements from lawyers for Matraimov's family to explain the name change.