Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

In Kyrgyzstan, Controversial Former Customs Official Matraimov Rearrested

A week ago, Matraimov pleaded guilty to corruption and was fined $3,000. He may soon face new charges.

Catherine Putz
In Kyrgyzstan, Controversial Former Customs Official Matraimov Rearrested
Credit: Pixabay

A week after walking away from a Bishkek court with a $3,000 fine after pleading guilty to corruption, Raimbek Matraimov has been rearrested by Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB or UKMK). 

According to 24.kg on February 18, the court will decide within 48 hours whether to release or hold Matraimov while its investigation proceeds into alleged money laundering.

Matraimov, a key figure in a 2019 joint OCCRP, RFE/RL, Kloop investigation into a massive smuggling empire crisscrossing the region, was alleged to have helped arrange the laundering of more than $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan while serving as a deputy head of the country’s customs service. The smuggling empire was run by a shadowy family of Chinese Uyghurs, the Abdukadyrs (remember the name; we’ll get back to it).

Matraimov was initially arrested in October 2020 as Kyrgyzstan’s post-parliamentary election turmoil was settling with Sadyr Japarov on top. Matraimov was swiftly released from custody on house arrest, with a pledge to pay back some 2 billion Kyrgyz som (around $24 million), which Japarov used to highlight a new “economic amnesty” policy. Matraimov’s trial began and ended on a single day last week, with a judge accepting his guilty plea, payment of 1.4 billion som in cash and 600 million som in real estate, and issuing only a $3,000 fine as punishment. 

Given that the $24 million Matraimov paid the state is a mere fraction of what he’s alleged to have amassed, Kyrgyz took to the streets over the weekend in protest. Anti-corruption protests have been a occasional feature in Bishkek since the first OCCRP, RFE/RL, Kloop investigative report went live in November 2019. Since the October political upheaval, protests have been organized every weekend in Bishkek by an organization called the Bashtan Bashta (Start With Your Head) movement.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

RFE/RL reported that the latest protests, organized by Bashtan Bashta on February 14, drew hundreds of people to the cold streets of Bishkek. They gathered at the main train station and marched toward the iconic Ala-Too Square at the center of the city. According to RFE/RL’s reporting, protesters carried signs demanding the “rule of law” and chanted “Arrest Raim” and “Raim must be held responsible.”

In early December 2020, the United States designated Matraimov under the Global Magnitsky act. The press release accompanying the designation specifically referenced Matraimov’s  “involvement in a customs scheme in which at least USD 700 million was laundered from the Kyrgyz Republic.” 

“Matraimov, utilizing his former position as deputy of the Kyrgyz Customs Service, made hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of his involvement in the customs scheme,” the press release stated.

The $24 million “economic amnesty” plus the $3,000 fine doesn’t come close to “hundreds of millions of dollars” and many observers saw the “punishment” delivered by the Kyrgyz justice system as a mere slap on the wrist. While Matraimov’s re-arrest and the possibility of new corruption charges provides a path toward justice, it’s a narrow one. Matraimov has demonstrated time and again an ability to wriggle away from accountability. For now, we’ll have to see if he is again released on house arrest, pending an investigation, and if so if he remains in the country. If he does, he may face another trial, but those demanding justice may just as easily be disappointed again.

An interesting rumor provides a worthy coda: According to Kyrgyz media citing unnamed sources this week, Matraimov was set to marry his eldest son, Bakai, to the daughter of Khabibulla Abdukadyr, the Uyghur businessmen at the center of the aforementioned smuggling empire, in Almaty, Kazakhstan sometime soon.