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In Kyrgyzstan, Pendulum Swings Hard Against Matraimov With Arrest

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In Kyrgyzstan, Pendulum Swings Hard Against Matraimov With Arrest

Over the last five years, Kyrgyz authorities have repeatedly had their hands on notoriously corrupt former official Raimbek Matraimov and each time let him go. Will this time be different?

In Kyrgyzstan, Pendulum Swings Hard Against Matraimov With Arrest

Mere days after breaking up an alleged assassination plot, Kyrgyz authorities finally got their hands on fugitive former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov, whom they’d implicated as behind the plot.

On March 23, as Central Asia was reeling from news of the Crocus City Hall attack on the outskirts of Moscow, Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS) reported that it had broken up an alleged assassination plot targeting unnamed members of the Kyrgyz leadership with the arrest of five Azerbaijani citizens. Almost immediately, the SCNS claimed that Matraimov was behind the plot and residing in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

Matraimov – once referred to as “Raim Millionaire” for his ostentatious wealth despite his public service job – was placed on a wanted list in January. It was the latest evolution of the Matraimov saga, which has oscillated wildly over the past five years.

In 2019, when the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, and Kloop released a damning report implicating Matraimov in a massive corruption scheme, Kyrgyz authorities sat in stunned silence as he filed lawsuits against the media outlets that had published or shared the reporting. The pendulum began to swing after the October 2020 revolution that catapulted Sadyr Japarov into the presidency, but although Matraimov was arrested and ultimately pled guilty, he was released after paying a mere fraction of what he was alleged to have helped steal from the Kyrgyz state. Matraimov was designated for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act by the U.S. in December 2020, a move that was read in part as a rebuke of the new Kyrgyz leadership for letting him go so easily.

Matraimov was re-arrested on new charges of money laundering in early 2021 but released and the charges dropped. In October 2023, the pendulum again swung back at Matraimov when another notorious, internationally wanted, criminal kingpin named Kamchybek Kolbaev was killed by state security officers in a shootout in a Bishkek bar.

In the wake of the Kolbaev killing, SCNS head Kamchybek Tashiev went on the war-path, railing against organized crime in Kyrgyzstan, proclaiming that “from now on there will be neither Kolbaev’s mafia, nor Matraimov’s mafia, nor other mafias in Kyrgyzstan.”

In January 2024,  Kyrgyz media reported sources stating that the SCNS had placed Matraimov on a wanted list on suspicion of abducting and illegally incarcerating unnamed individuals. No further details were offered about the charges, and it was not clear at the time where Matraimov was. In February, Iskender Matraimov – Raimbek’s brother – surrendered his parliamentary mandate, as did another deputy with close ties to the family. 

That brings us to March and the rapid churn of events this week. According to Kyrgyz media, Raimbek, along with three of his brothers (Kloop reported them as Ruslan, Tilek, and Ismabek), were detained on March 26 and swiftly extradited from Azerbaijan. Some reports included Iskender in the list, but his son posted on Facebook that his father had not been arrested and was returning voluntarily to Kyrgyzstan from Dubai. 

As I’ve noted past articles for The Diplomat Magazine, the Japarov-Tashiev tandem has repeatedly claimed to have forestalled various plots, mostly coups. It’s difficult to confirm or refute such claims, given a lack of evidence presented publicly and the tendency of Bishkek to interpret all opposition as revolutionary in intent. 

When it comes to Matraimov, it’s possible that Bishkek is both justified in arresting him but also acting with primarily populist intent. It’s not an anti-corruption/anti-crime campaign without any corrupt criminals being arrested, after all. But the repeatedly missed opportunities over the last five years to bring Matraimov to justice suggest that it’s not necessarily the crime, but the timing that is of critical importance.

Will Matraimov again wriggle off the hook? Will there ever be consequences for the officials who time and again let him go?