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US places former Kyrgyz customs official Matraimov under Magnitsky sanctions

Raimbek Matraimov (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States has imposed sanctions against former Kyrgyz customs official Raimbek Matraimov, a wealthy and influential political player who is currently under house arrest in Kyrgyzstan.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced on December 9 that it had added Matraimov to the list of individuals sanctioned by its financial intelligence and enforcement agency.

The sanctions fall under the Magnitsky Act, a piece of legislation passed by the United States in 2012 that penalizes individuals responsible for committing human rights violations or acts of significant corruption.

Last year, a joint investigation by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and the Kyrgyz news site 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 assassinated in Istanbul in November 2019.

Records leaked from the Turkish investigation into Saimaiti’s killing showed that he had named Matraimov as one of two people who would be responsible should something happen to him, according to a subsequent report by RFE/RL.

The other individual was Khabibula Abdukadyr — a Chinese-born Uyghur cargo magnate with a Kazakh passport for whom Saimaiti said he had laundered money.

In June, a Kyrgyz parliamentary commission tasked with examining the circumstances of Saimaiti’s killing finalized a report that did not indicate a possible motive for the crime, or who might have ordered it. Matraimov has denied that he had any connection to Saimaiti or his death.

Critics accused the commission of failing to tackle the evidence of corruption revealed in the investigation by RFE/RL, OCCRP, and Kloop. But following the collapse of the Kyrgyz government following disputed elections in October, a Bishkek district court placed Matraimov under house arrest on corruption charges.

The new Kyrgyz authorities had earlier detained Matraimov, an ally of former President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, as part of a new corruption investigation.

The State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said in a statement that Matraimov had been detained “as part of a pretrial investigation into corruption by customs authorities,” adding that the former customs official was part of a corruption scheme that resulted in damages to the state budget “on an especially large scale.”

The UKMK also reportedly said that Matraimov had agreed to pay about 2 billion soms ($23.5 million) in damages to the state, and that 80 million soms (almost $1 million) had been transferred to its account.

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 the controversial 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.

In the resulting power vacuum, Sadyr 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. Prior to Matraimov’s detention, Japarov had also expressed concerns that the former customs official might have fled the country.

In addition to Matraimov, two individuals from Macau and Liberia were sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act on December 9, along with three entities from Hong Kong, Palau and Cambodia. All property of the individuals and entities that fall under U.S. jurisdiction will be frozen as a result of the sanctions.

The moves, coming just over a month before U.S. Democratic President-elect Joe Biden is to take office, are the latest in a spate of recent sanctions imposed by the administration of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump.