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Kyrgyzstan arrests ex-president’s brother in gold mine probe

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not pictured) and Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov address the media at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Security services in Kyrgyzstan said Tuesday they had detained several current and former lawmakers including a former president’s brother amid a dispute with Canadian firm Centerra over the country’s largest gold mine.

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Asylbek Jeenbekov, viewed as one of Kyrgyzstan’s most powerful men until his brother Sooronbay Jeenbekov stepped down as president last year, is one of at least five prominent politicians who have been arrested on corruption charges this week.

The arrest of Asylbek Jeenbekov, another lawmaker who is his ally and two former deputies comes after former prime minister Omurbek Babanov was detained on similar charges on Monday.

The arrests are in connection with suspected graft “at various stages of the development” of the Kumtor Gold mine project, the Central Asian country’s largest foreign investment, the security service said in a statement.

Kyrgyzstan has regularly accused Canada-headquartered Centerra Gold of denying the government a fair share of Kumtor’s proceeds, committing environmental transgressions and facilitating political corruption.

But government critics have said authorities could be using the Kumtor case to eliminate potential opponents and campaign financiers ahead of parliamentary elections expected later this year.

The dispute over Kumtor entered new territory last month when Kyrgyzstan passed a law allowing the government to temporarily seize the mine in order to correct what it said were environmental and safety violations there.

After government officials entered the mine and raided company offices in Bishkek on the weekend of May 15-16 Centera said that it was “no longer in control of the Kumtor Mine.”

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The escalation came after a state commission said Kyrgyzstan was seeking over $4 billion (3.2 billion euros) in environmental and unpaid tax claims from Centerra.

The company denies any wrongdoing and has filed for international arbitration against Kyrgyzstan’s government.

Sooronbay Jeenbekov became the third Kyrgyz leader to step down amid political chaos since the country’s independence last year after parties close to him were embroiled in vote-rigging accusations.

The crisis paved a path to power for populist former opposition politician Japarov, who was serving jail time for hostage-taking when the protests over the vote kicked off.

Japarov’s 2017 conviction was linked to a protest against Centerra which saw a governor of the eastern region where the gold mine is located briefly held hostage by demonstrators.

Japarov has insisted the criminal case was politically motivated.

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