13 Dec 2019 19:18

Bishkek court lifts arrest of bank accounts belonging to Radio Liberty's Kyrgyz service

BISHKEK. Dec 13 (Interfax) - Bishkek's Sverdlovsky District Court has ruled to lift the arrest on bank accounts held by Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Liberty, and Kyrgyz news agencies Kloop and 24.kg, which had earlier published an investigative report about approximately $700 million siphoned out of the country.

"The Sverdlovsky Court of Bishkek has granted the motion submitted by the attorneys [...] of Matraimov to lift the arrest from the accounts of Radio Azattyk and news agencies Kloop and 24.kg," an employee at the court's registry told Interfax on Friday. The media companies' accounts in the country were frozen after one of the people mentioned in the report, ex-deputy head of the Kyrgyz State Customs Service Raimbek Matraimov, lodged a defamation lawsuit against the Kyrgyz media.

The bank accounts will be unfrozen within ten days, but it does not mean that the defamation lawsuit itself will be revoked, the court official said.

Radio Azattyk, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kyrgyz service, assisted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and the news agency Kloop.kg on November 21 published an investigative report about the smuggling of goods from China into Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan via Kyrgyzstan and the illegal withdrawal of roughly $700 million from Kyrgyzstan between 2011 and 2016.

According to Radio Azattyk, Chinese entrepreneurs and high-ranking Kyrgyz officials could be involved in criminal schemes involving the laundering and removal of money from Kyrgyzstan as well as smuggling via the southern Osh region. Matraimov was mentioned in the report because he was employed as a senior officer at the State Customs Service department in the Osh region between 2005 and 2015.

On Thursday, the Sverdlovsky Court of Bishkek told Interfax that Raimbek Matraimov and his brother, Kyrgyz MP Iskender Matraimov, lodged defamation lawsuits against Radio Azattyk, asking damages of 22.5 million som, as well as separately against radio journalist Ali Toktakunov in the amount of 10 million som, Kloop in the amount of 12.5 million som, and 24.kg in the amount of 15 million som. The total amount of the claims is 60 million som, roughly $860,000.

The court ruled to freeze the defendants' bank accounts.

Earlier on Friday, Kyrgyz presidential press secretary Tolgonai Stamaliyeva criticized the seizure of accounts held by media that had earlier published a report about the smuggling of goods and the illegal siphoning of $700 million out of the country, describing it as "a blow to democracy."

In commentary received by Interfax, Stamaliyeva said that Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov abides by the principles of guaranteeing freedom of speech and stands for a strong civil society, but refrains from meddling in court proceedings. In a case like this, any reaction from Jeenbekov may be perceived by the public as an attempt to exert pressure on the court investigation and the judgment, she said.

"All court proceedings, including those involving media, must be held strictly within the limits of the law," Stamaliyeva said.

"Nonetheless, we unambiguously state that this delivers a blow not only to the image of the Kyrgyz president, who publicly proclaims the principle of freedom of speech everywhere, but also to our democratic country," she said, commenting on the freezing of Radio Azattyk, Kloop and 24.kg bank accounts.