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Kazakhstan jails ex-minister for embezzling $3mn

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Kuandyk Bishimbayev, Kazakhstan's former economy minister

A US-educated former Kazakh economy minister once viewed as leading a crop of young modernizers in the oil-rich country was convicted Wednesday of corruption charges and handed a 10-year prison sentence.

Scores of spectators packed out a small courthouse in the Kazakh capital Astana to see Kuandyk Bishimbayev, 37, found guilty of embezzling some $3 million from a state holding company in a trial that generated major public interest.

Bishimbayev greeted the verdict in silence, while several of his relatives broke down in tears.

He denied wrongdoing at the helm of a state-owned holding in charge of innovation and modernization projects, the position he held in 2013-2016 before becoming economy minister.

US-educated Bishimbayev was viewed by many as a prodigy and appeared destined for a long and successful career in the Central Asian country's government before his brief tenure as Kazakhstan's economy minister was suddenly cut short in December 2016.

He was arrested on corruption charges the following month.

Authorities say some $3 million was embezzled from the company in total, with Bishimbayev reportedly stealing some $2 million.

Bishimbayev was a prominent graduate of the much-vaunted government program that saw talented citizens funded to study at some of the world's most prestigious universities.

He rose to the rank of deputy trade minister by the time he was 26, the youngest person to take a position of that rank at the time.

A file photo shows former economy minister Kuandyk Bishimbayev (left) is meeting with President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana in 2015. (Photo by Akorda)

The program was created with approval from Kazakhstan's long-ruling 77-year-old strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1993 in order to replenish a bureaucracy dominated by Communist-era apparatchiks with modernizers.

Last month Nazarbayev said he "regretted" the money invested in Bishimbayev via the state scholarship program in comments seen as a prelude to a guilty verdict.

Kazakhstan placed 122nd out of 180 countries in Transparency International's 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Critics say Nazarbayev's authoritarian government offers little space for political opposition and a free media.

(Source: AFP)

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