U.S. Embassy Expresses 'Disappointment' Over Kyrgyz Powerbroker Release From Custody

BISHKEK -- The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan has expressed concern over the release from pretrial detention of 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.

In a statement on April 16, the embassy said it felt "disappointment at the release of organized crime boss" Matraimov.

"We would note that Matraimov is the subject of U.S. State Department and Treasury Department Global Magnitsky and visa sanctions for his participation in a corrupt customs scheme in which at least $700 million was laundered from the Kyrgyz Republic, funds which could have been used by the Kyrgyz government for priorities such as health care, education, agriculture, and pensions. The United States remains committed to freezing his criminal assets overseas and returning them to the Kyrgyz people," the embassy statement said.

The statement came a day after Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said a probe against Matraimov was stopped after investigators failed to find cash or real estate belonging to Matraimov or members of his family abroad.

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

The U.S. Embassy's April 16 statement stressed that Washington continues to cooperate with Bishkek to combat organized crime and corruption.

"In relation to Matraimov, we are working together with Kyrgyz law enforcement to identify properties and financial interests owned by Matraimov that could be frozen under the requirements of the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The 2019 return by the United States of $4.5 million of [fugitive former President Kurmanbek Bakiev's son] Maksim Bakiev’s corrupt money is evidence of U.S. commitment to fight corruption and return stolen assets to the Kyrgyz people," the statement said.

A Bishkek court in February ordered pretrial custody for Matraimov in connection with the corruption charges after hundreds of Kyrgyz protested a ruling mitigating his sentence after he plead guilty to offenses. People were upset that the mitigated sentence meant no jail time for Matraimov and fines of just a few thousand dollars.

The court had justified the move saying that Matraimov had paid back around $24 million that disappeared through corruption 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 economic amnesty was announced in October 2020 by Sadyr Japarov, then acting Kyrgyz president, just a day after Matraimov was detained and placed under house arrest. Japarov has since been elected as 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 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.

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

Radio Free Europe

RFE/RL journalists report the news in 22 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established, including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia.

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