Two former prime ministers of Kyrgyzstan were sentenced to long jail terms on corruption charges on Friday in a trial that roiled the national elite and fueled suspicion toward China.
Sapar Isakov, who headed the Central Asian country’s government in 2017 and last year, and Jantoro Satybaldiyev, who filled the role from 2012 to 2014, were handed 15 and seven-and-a-half year prison terms respectively by the court in the capital, Bishkek.
The pair were among eight defendants on trial over a nearly US$400 million Chinese-financed deal to modernize a power plant. The power plant, which services Bishkek, where nearly 1 million people live, broke down in winter last year, after the project had been completed.
Isakov, 42, was an ally of 63-year-old former Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev, who fell out with Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov not long after his one-time protege replaced him in 2017.
Atambayev, 63, is himself in jail on corruption charges and is a suspect in more than a dozen other crimes, some relating to a violent standoff between his supporters and law enforcement that left one officer dead in August.
Political infighting has provided the background to the high-profile power plant trial, which concluded on Friday, but proceedings also raised questions about how Chinese companies operate on Kyrgyz territory.
Prosecutors said that Chinese contractor Tebian Electric Apparatus secured the US$400 million deal to modernize the aging facility thanks to Isakov’s lobbying and in spite of a rival bid being cheaper.
Isakov said that Tebian was awarded the contract because China’s state-owned Exim Bank made it a condition for its financing of the project.
No representative of Tebian or Exim Bank appeared at the trial.
Among other defendants, a former head of the state energy holding was handed a 15-year sentence, while two former ministers were slapped with fines. The court heard that a number of items procured for the modernization were purchased at inflated prices, including a pair of pliers for US$600.
Public anger erupted over the project after the plant failed amid temperatures approaching minus-30°C — the coldest winter the country had seen in a decade.
The fiasco set the stage for Jeenbekov’s consolidation of power at the expense of former patron Atambayev, who had endorsed his candidacy during presidential elections in 2017.
Tebian has completed other infrastructure projects in the region, including a key power line in Kyrgyzstan and a power plant in Tajikistan, a mountainous state bordering China and Kyrgyzstan, which paid for the project with mining concessions.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the two poorest republics to gain independence from the Soviet Union.
Both look to former patron Russia to bolster security and as a destination for hundreds of thousands of migrants while leaning on China for investment.
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