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Kyrgyz Powerbroker Matraimov Drops Lawsuit Against RFE/RL

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

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Magnitsky sanctions list for his involvement in the illegal funneling of hundreds of millions of dollars abroad, has withdrawn his libel lawsuit against RFE/RL, its former correspondent, and two other media outlets.

Lawyer Akmat Alagushev -- who represents RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, its former reporter Ali Toktakunov, and the Klopp and news agencies -- told RFE/RL that a court in Bishkek ruled on April 27 that the case had been closed due to a move by Matraimov's lawyers to withdraw the lawsuit.

Matraimov and his family filed the libel lawsuit after the media outlets published a 2019 investigation by RFE/RL, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Kloop implicating him 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.

"RFE/RL's award-winning investigative reporting into Mr. Matraimov's corrupt dealings has always spoken clearly for itself," the broadcaster's president, Jamie Fly, said in a statement.

"Our intrepid journalists reported this story despite months of serious threats, online harassment, and an organized pressure campaign. We continue to call on the Kyrgyz government to investigate those who threaten journalists and hold them accountable for their actions," he added.

The court decided to stop the libel suit less than two weeks after Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said that the corruption probe against Matraimov had been halted, as investigators failed to find any cash or property belonging to Matraimov or members of his family abroad.

When Matraimov was rearrested in February, the UKMK said he was being held as a suspect for laundering money through the purchase of real estate 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 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 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 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 a conviction for corruption, while the constitutional changes create an authoritarian system and concentrating too much power in the hands of the president.

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 moves, 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 has been no official statement from Matraimov or his lawyers to explain the name change.