Kyrgyz powerbroker detained as new leader seeks donor support

Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP) –

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Kyrgyzstan's authorities Tuesday detained on corruption charges a powerbroker close to former president Sooronbay Jeenbekov, as the new acting leader sought to play up the reform credentials of his cash-strapped government.

Ex-deputy customs chief Rayimbek Matraimov was regarded as a key financial backer for political parties and presidents, including Jeenbekov.

Jeenbekov stepped down last week in the wake of protests that followed a disputed parliamentary election on October 4, leaving power in the hands of Sadyr Japarov as prime minister and acting president.

The national security committee said that Matraimov and other officials were part of "a corruption scheme established to extract shadow income during customs administration".

The scheme had begun in 2016, when Matraimov was still in his post and had resulted in "especially large scale damage" to the state budget, it said in a statement.

Japarov had pledged to bring Matraimov to justice over claims first aired in a media report that he was at the centre of a scheme that funnelled $700 million out of the impoverished republic.

But many observers have viewed the arrest in cynical terms, as the new government seeks to get foreign donors on board following two weeks of turbulence.

Japarov met Tuesday with a regional representative of United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and said the country had "returned to constitutional order" following the unrest.

He told the UN's Natalia Gherman that the government's priorities were fighting the coronavirus and corruption, which had "infiltrated all areas of human activity", according to state information agency Kabar's report.

Matraimov was seen as the main backer of the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party that dominated the parliamentary vote along with a party called Birimdik that included Jeenbekov's brother among its ranks.

Last year he was the target of protests led by civic groups who called on authorities to investigate the allegations in the media report. Jeenbekov responded that "facts" were needed in order to prosecute Matraimov.

- 'A show' -

The publishers of the report, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, described Matraimov as a gatekeeper for an "underground Central Asian cargo empire".

Bolot Temirov, an investigative journalist who was beaten up by a group of men after his fact-checking outlet published a separate report on Matraimov's wealth, told AFP that it was too early to celebrate the former official's demise.

Matraimov still has "money and influence" he said.

Nursultan Akylbek, an activist who protested at rallies after the report's release, cast doubts over the intentions behind the arrest.

"(The arrest) looked like a show. We have a big budget deficit. Probably they want to show donors they are fighting corruption," Akylbek said.

The Matraimov and Jeenbekov-affiliated parties were accused of massive vote-buying and the results were annulled after protests morphed into clashes between police and supporters of opposition parties.

Parliament was set to meet Wednesday to discuss dates for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.

Japarov, 51, who claimed power less than two weeks after he was sprung from jail by supporters, has said that the fight against corruption would "cease to be a tool for eliminating political opponents" and pledged that organised crime "will stop dictating its terms".

Japarov has angrily denied suggestions aired in local media that he has his own ties to organised crime.

Prior to his release Japarov was serving jail time for hostage taking -- a conviction related to an incident that took place during a 2013 rally in support of the nationalisation of a key foreign-operated gold mine.

There has as yet been no indication that key ally Russia recognises his new functions.