A libel lawsuit against media organizations which exposed corruption in Kyrgyzstan has resumed after the plaintiffs withdrew their claim against one outlet.
On January 29, a hearing resumed in Bishkek’s Sverdlov District Court regarding a libel lawsuit – leveled against RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known as Azattyk, one of its correspondents, Ali Toktakunov, and the news site Kloop – by the former deputy chief of the customs service Raimbek Matraimov and his relatives.
The Matraimov family was named in relation to an investigative report put out last November by Azattyk, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and Kloop. Earlier in November, a major source for the story was assassinated in Istanbul, adding urgency to the explosive report which, among other things, peeled back the veil on the transfer of more than $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan, right under the nose (and with the arguable assistance of) the customs service.
Among those implicated in the investigation was Raimbek Matraimov, a former customs official dubbed “Raim Millionaire” by cynical Kyrgyz in reference to his wealth being disproportionate to a life of public sector work.
Ilya Lozovsky, managing editor at OCCRP at the time of the investigation, spoke to The Diplomat in December and explained the outline of the investigation and the position of the Matraimovs within it. The wider report details how funds earned through the alleged smuggling of undeclared and falsely labeled goods from China into Kyrgyzstan by a powerful Uyghur family, the Abdukadyrs, were siphoned out of the country and laundered.
One piece of the report 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 told The Diplomat that this was the “first demonstrated formal business connection between the two families.”
In addition, the source later killed in Istanbul, Aierkin Saimaiti, “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.”
The reports exploded across Kyrgyz media and brought people to the streets in protest, carrying caricatures of Matraimov and waving yellow cards, which in football (soccer) signal a warning to a misbehaving player.
The Matraimovs quickly filed a libel lawsuit against Azattyk, Kloop, and 24.kg, an independent Kyrgyz media outlet that published a summary of the investigation.
The initial lawsuit, according to RFE/RL, demanded more than $850,000 in compensation for the alleged damages: 10 million soms ($143,150) from Toktakunov, 22.5 million soms ($323,100) from Azattyk, 12.5 million soms ($179,000) from Kloop, and 15 million soms ($215,000) from 24.kg.
This week, the family agreed to drop the portion of the suit against 24.kg after the outlet published a statement explaining, explicitly, that the reports are not the product of their own investigation. The statement reads, in part:
Editorial staff of the news agency lacks evidence confirming the heading that the former deputy head of the Customs, Raiymbek Matraimov, and his family members had been or are involved in smuggling.
When publishing this material, the editorial staff based on articles in open sources of the journalistic investigation by Azattyk and Kloop.
24.kg news agency did not conduct an investigation; accordingly, it does not have materials and data confirming the information presented in the article.
The Matraimovs, 24.kg reported, then withdrew the material claims — the 15 million soms — from the case. The suit continues against Azattyk and Kloop, which have refused to capitulate to requests that they rescind their investigation.
In December, in a preliminary hearing, the judge rejected the Matraimovs’ requests to ban publication of excerpts of the investigation and publish the names of all the journalists involved (which, for obvious reasons have not been).
One issue at the heart of this matter is press freedom in Kyrgyzstan. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders called the lawsuit “absurd” in a statement on January 29 which also highlighted increasing threats against journalists in Kyrgyzstan. For example, the chief editor of Kyrgyz site Factcheck, Bolot Temirov, was assaulted in Bishkek in early January, presumably because of an investigation he did with Bellingcat into Ulkan Turgunova, Raimbek Matraimov’s wife.
The outcome of the lawsuit against Azattyk and Kloop will be a critical barometer of what’s next for the press in Kyrgyzstan.