Ex-Kyrgyz diplomat arrested after car found near murder scene

Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP) –


A former Kyrgyz diplomat has been arrested after his car was found near the scene of a whistleblower's murder in Turkey, the country's security agency said on Thursday.

A vehicle belonging to Erkin Sopokov, recently dismissed as Turkey's Consulate General in Istanbul, was found close to where Aierken Saimaiti, a Chinese businessman-turned-whistleblower with shadowy ties to the ex-Soviet republic, was gunned down in Istanbul on November 10.

Sopokov has been held in Kyrgyzstan on suspicion of abuse of office for allowing Saimaiti and other people to use the car which had diplomatic number plates. He is also accused of illegal enrichment.

The GKNB state security agency said Sopokov's detention was prompted by a media investigation in which Saimaiti admitted to his role in helping facilitate bribery and money laundering while implicating a powerful former customs official in massive corruption schemes.

In the investigation, by Radio Free Europe's Kyrgyz service, local outlet Kloop.kg and the US-based Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Saimati also detailed a previous attempt on his life in Kyrgyzstan and told the journalists he feared for his safety.

Police in Turkey, to where Saimaiti fled after talking to the journalists, have arrested at least three people in connection with his killing.

Saimaiti, a Chinese national of Uighur heritage, was a little-known figure in Kyrgyzstan prior to this year.

But his testimony in the report shed light on underground corruption that has enriched elite figures.

On Monday hundreds took to the streets of the capital Bishkek to demand the arrest of Rayimbek Matraimov, nicknamed "Rayim Million", the former customs official that Saimaiti named as a beneficiary of bribery and money laundering schemes.

Matraimov no longer holds his post but is widely believed to wield tremendous power over the fragile government via a series of highly-placed relatives.

He has said Saimaiti's allegations are untrue.

The report's revelations have also piled further pressure on President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who has declared his aim to "struggle against corruption" but failed to condemn the Matraimov clan.

Opposition-led protests in Kyrgyzstan brought down successive presidents in 2005 and 2010 but few reforms followed.

The mountainous country of some six million people looks to China for much-needed investment and hosts a Russian military airbase.