A recent investigation by RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk, OCCRP, and Kloop exposed significant corruption in Kyrgyzstan’s customs service, including the transfer of more than $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan. The investigation’s reports have been widely circulated and sparked a large public protest against corruption in Bishkek. The Kyrgyz government’s initial responses were dull until a lawsuit was filed by some of those implicated in the reports against the involved media organizations.
The Kyrgyz courts appeared to fast-track the freezing of the involved media organizations’ assets as part of the pending lawsuit and then just as rapidly accept a reversal request as the international outcry grew louder.
In another notable development, a spokesperson for President Sooronbay Jeenbekov on one hand defended the president’s silence on the investigation’s reports, noting that any reaction from Jeenbekov could be perceived as an attempt to exert pressure. At the same time, the spokesperson, Tolgonai Stamalieva, said that the lawsuit was “a blow against his image and the country’s democracy.”
Among those implicated in the investigation is Raimbek Matraimov, a former customs official dubbed “Raim Millionaire” by cynical Kyrgyz in reference to his apparent wealth.
Speaking to The Diplomat, Ilya Lozovsky, managing editor at OCCRP, explained that the self-confessed money launder, Aierkin Saimaiti — who was murdered in Istanbul last month, where he’d been meeting with journalists to expose the corruption he had participated in — explained that there were two main ways money was squirreled out of Kyrgyzstan. Using wire transfers or couriers, Saimaiti helped launder the proceeds of an underground smuggling and trading empire managed by the Abdukadyr family.
The Abdukadyrs, a Chinese Uyghur family, allegedly smuggle undeclared and falsely labeled goods from China into Kyrgyzstan and onward into regional markets. According to RFE/RL, the family is “so secretive that, until now, not a single photograph of its key members has appeared in the public domain.” High-level government connections, and bribes, are a virtual necessity in such work.
Funds earned through this trade were siphoned out of the country and laundered according to the investigation; in some cases funds then found their way back into Kyrgyzstan. One vignette that shines a light on the complicated and corrupt system involved a construction project in Dubai, in which Matraimov’s wife was a co-investor with the Abdukadyr family.
Lozovsky noted that this was the “first demonstrated formal business connection between the two families.”
Saimaiti, Lozovsky said, “made repeated strong allegations that Matraimov was an organizer, was sort of a bundler of the customs bribes and of ensuring the customs officials did what they were supposed to for the Abdukadyr family. And that Matraimov personally benefited, with wire transfers going to his family’s charitable foundation in Kyrgyzstan.”
On December 12, RFE/RL’s office in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, received a letter referencing a December 10 ruling by a Sverdlov District Court judge freezing the bank accounts of RFE/RL correspondent Ali Toktakunov, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Kloop, and 24.kg, an independent Kyrgyz media outlet that published a summary of the investigation. All three outlets are viewed as being some of the few independent media organizations in the country.
The lawsuit — filed by Raimbek Matraimov, Iskender Matraimov (Raimbek’s brother, an MP), Minovar Jumaeva, Uulkan Turgunova, and the Ismail Matraimov Public Foundation — charges that the media organizations damaged their “honor, dignity, and business reputations.” The lawsuit, according to RFE/RL, demands more than $850,000 in compensation for the alleged damages: 10 million soms ($143,150) from Toktakunov, 22.5 million soms ($323,100) from RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, 12.5 million soms ($179,000) from Kloop, and 15 million soms ($215,000) from 24.kg.
On December 13, legal representatives from the Matraimov family petitioned the court to unfreeze the assets. The court accepted the motion. This curious and quick thaw underscores how influential the Matraimovs are — at their request assets were immediately frozen and at their request they were immediately unfrozen. The lawsuit itself, however, has not been rescinded.
On December 12, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly commented that the organization had not even seen a copy of the Matraimov suit:
We have not seen the Matraimov complaint, nor have we seen any official documents explaining the court’s decision to block our account. This is an outrageous assault on Azattyk’s operations and independence, and a threat to Azattyk reporters and staff. It also contradicts President Jeenbekov’s firm pledge, made to me personally in August, to support independent journalism and combat corruption in Kyrgyzstan.
Fly’s statement may have sparked the Jeenbekov administration’s response. Stamalieva said that Jeenbekov has long adhered to the principles of protecting the freedom of speech and advocating for a strong civil society. “The president does not change his beliefs that these factors will play an important role in the development of the country.”
Matraimov is no stranger to lawsuits (and winning them). In his last day in office, former President Almazbek Atambayev, via his Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, fired Matraimov from his customs post; Matraimov challenged the firing as illegal in court and won.
Whatever the political calculations being made behind the scenes, public reactions have been indicative of domestic frustration with corruption and supportive of the international defense of free speech. On a snowy late November day, an estimated 1,000 people marched against corruption in Bishkek. A second march, in response to the pressure being put on the involved media outlets, is reportedly being planned for December 18.
Harlem Désir, the representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), issued a statement on December 13 expressing concern about the lawsuit. “I am highly concerned that today these media in Kyrgyzstan have to fight a legal battle which will cast a shadow upon their very existence,” Désir said. “Disproportionate damages in civil defamation cases have a chilling effect on media freedom. It may bring about the closure of outlets and endanger media pluralism. I call for respect for journalists who reported on this case, including investigative journalists, who play a key role in press freedom and democracy.”
Kloop has opened a Patreon account to further diversify its funding sources.
In the United States — which directly funds RFE/RL — the House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted a statement: “The Kyrgyz Government is suppressing journalism rather [than] rooting out credible allegations of corruption from @kloopnews & @RFERL Kyrgyz Service, @Azattyk_Radiosu. Intimidating & silencing a free press is an assault on basic freedoms. The government should change course immediately.”
Lozovsky, of OCCRP, commented that the lawsuit was “definitely an attempt to silence independent investigative journalism” in Kyrgyzstan. While at least one Kyrgyz MP has called for an investigation of the allegations made in the reporting and the GKNB (State Committee for National Security) called Matraimov in for questioning, it’s unclear how seriously the government is planning to pursue the issue.
In an interview with Global Voices, Kloop co-founder Bektour Iskender pointed out that “this situation presents a huge opportunity to any major politician willing to make the fight against corruption part of his or her agenda” with an eye on Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections next fall.