Kyrgyzstan sentences ex-PM to 15 years over China corruption scandal

Sapar Isakov was 1 of 8 defendants on trial. (Twitter pic/OIE Animal Health).

BISHKEK: Kyrgyzstan’s former prime minister was sentenced to 15 years of prison on corruption charges Friday in a trial that roiled the national elite and fuelled suspicion over China’s economic clout.

Sapar Isakov, who headed the Central Asian country’s government from 2017 to 2018 was one of eight defendants on trial for corruption linked to a near-US$400 million China-financed deal for modernising a power plant.

The power plant servicing capital Bishkek, where nearly a million people live, overloaded and broke down during the winter of 2018, after the project had been completed.

Isakov, 42, was an ally of 63-year-old former president Almazbek Atambayev who fell out with successor Sooronbai Jeenbekov not long after his one-time protégé replaced him in 2017.

Atambayev, 63, is himself currently jailed 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 Friday, but proceedings also raised questions about how Chinese companies operate on Kyrgyz territory across the border.

Prosecutors said that Chinese contractor Tebian Electric Apparatus (TBEA) secured the US$400 million deal to modernise the ageing facility thanks to Isakov’s lobbying and in spite of a rival bid being cheaper.

But the ex-premier argued TBEA won the contract because China’s state-owned Exim bank made finance for the product conditional on the company’s victory.

No representative of either TBEA or Exim Bank appeared at the trial.

Public anger erupted over the project after the plant failed amid temperatures approaching -30°C – the coldest winter the country had seen for a decade.

The fiasco set the stage for 61-year-old Jeenbekov’s consolidation of power at the expense of former patron Atambayev, who had endorsed his candidacy during presidential elections in 2017.

Kyrgyzstan is the second poorest of the republics to gain independence from the Soviet Union.

The majority-Muslim country of over six million looks to former patron Russia to bolster its security and as a destination for hundreds of thousands of migrants while leaning on China for investment.