Undaunted by lawsuits and threats, a joint investigation by RFE/RL, OCCRP, and OCCRP’s Kyrgyz member center, Kloop, released a new batch of articles on June 29 rooted in information provided by Aierken Saimaiti, a 37-year-old who admitted to journalists to having laundered millions out of Kyrgyzstan at the behest of a powerful smuggling empire. He was murdered in Istanbul in early November 2019.
The investigation’s first batch of explosive reports was published in late November 2019, touching off anti-corruption protests and drawing the ire of Raimbek Matraimov, a former customs officials implicated in the reporting. The Matraimov family filed a libel lawsuit against the media outlets and journalists involved; one of the leading investigators, RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service’s Ali Toktakunov left the country after receiving threats.
Matraimov has denied all the allegations made and Kyrgyz authorities have moved lackadaisically to follow up on the reports, which have been widely lauded as investigative journalism at its best. In early June, in a parliamentary hearing that was ostensibly to focus on Saimaiti’s murder instead became a hearing of hearsey alleging that the journalists involved took money to publish their report. Kyrgyzstan’s state security service — the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) — lobbed the unsubstantiated accusation that Saimaiti paid reporters from RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service $100,000 and provided them with falsified documents.
But nevertheless, through all the above noise, the investigation persisted and has just now published two new articles as well as a database of the documents Saimaiti provided to reporters.
The two new articles dive deeper into the webs of corruption revealed by Saimaiti and fleshed them out in part on the back of new information. One report focuses on Saimaiti’s claim that he sent millions of pounds to London to purchase a luxury apartment for Raimbek Matraimov.
The other report expands upin Saimaiti’s claim that he’d organized the transfer of funds — “Raimbek Matraimov’s share of the spoils” — to the Matraimov family’s charity. The investigation considered a statement provided by the Kyrgyz financial police, which listed 10 donors to the Matraimov family’s charity between 2014 and 2019. The donors were only identified by initials, one being W.B. — presumably Saimaiti’s wife, Wufuli Bumailiyamu, who he used to conceal some transfers. Using U.S. bank records recently obtained, the investigation identified three other donors which all had links to Saimaiti. Some of Saimaiti’s wire transfers have been confirmed by the U.S. bank records. In total, the investigation alleges that nearly half of the $1.4 million the charity received between 2014 and 2019, per the financial police’s statement, came via Saimaiti’s money laundering network.
And the investigation has the documents to prove it. Perhaps the most interesting and important part of the new releases is the database. Kyrgyz authorities, as demonstrated in the early June fiasco in parliament, have been skeptical of the investigation and not looked too deeply into conducting its own thorough investigation of the allegations that the Kyrgyz customs serves served to facilitate a massive amount of money laundering.
The database stands as a clapback at accusations that the investigation was based on falsified documents, at best, and outright lies, at worst. “In many cases, [the reporters] were able to corroborate sums and other details listed in the records with publicly available information, including real estate records in the United States and the United Arab Emirates,” the investigation notes in introducing the database. “A small selection of U.S. bank records newly obtained by reporters confirms dozens of Saimaiti’s wire transfers, suggesting that he broadly provided authentic documents.”
The database includes details of 843 transactions of funds from Kyrgyzstan or Turkey into more than a dozen countries around the world. The investigation breaks it down even further by providing a step-by-step infographic explaining how they confirmed five transfers to Matraimov’s charity from Saimaiti’s wife and their associates. The infographic clearly shows how information alleged in the documents Saimaiti provided has been confirmed using information provided by the Kyrgyz financial police as well as U.S. bank records.
Corruption is a complex web to untangle, but one can’t move millions without leaving a mark somewhere in the financial system. Of course, depending on the countries involved it can be difficult if not impossible to easily peek into the records that would reveal such transfers or name the beneficial owners of the shell companies involved. That said, it’s clear RFE/RL, OCCRP, and Kloop have done their homework and aren’t afraid to demonstrate how thoroughly they have done so.
Meanwhile, on Monday, protesters took to the streets in Bishkek to voice their opposition to a newly passed law that grants the Kyrgyz government serious powers to censor content online — content like the RFE/RL, OCCRP and Kloop reporting, perhaps. Although the latest protests were planned before the new round of investigative reports landed, there’s a clear line between them and earlier protests, which followed the first round of reports in November.