BISHKEK -- A Bishkek court has accepted a motion to unfreeze the bank accounts of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, locally known as Azattyk, one if its correspondents, and the news site Kloop, which were blocked when the influential Kyrgyz family at the center of an alleged corruption ring exposed by the media outlets filed a libel suit against them.
The Sverdlov District Court in Bishkek made its ruling on December 13 after legal representatives for the Matraimov family formally asked for the accounts to be unblocked even though their libel suit against RFE/RL correspondent Ali Toktakunov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, and Kloop continues.
"Taking into account that freezing the accounts of the defendants may make it impossible to pay wages to the defendants' employees for a potentially significant period of time as the hearings into the case continue, the plaintiffs feel that it is necessary to ask the court to cancel the measure to secure the lawsuit's future implementation and unfreeze the defendants' [bank] accounts," the motion to unfreeze the accounts said.
The announcement came a day after RFE/RL's office in Bishkek received a letter from the same court saying that, according to a December 10 ruling by Judge Ibraimova J.B., bank accounts belonging to Toktakunov and the organizations involved must be frozen. Another independent news website, 24.kg, which published a summary of the joint investigation, also had its bank accounts frozen.
The decision was made, the court ruling said, due to a lawsuit filed by Raimbek Matraimov, Iskender Matraimov, Minovar Jumaeva, Uulkan Turgunova, and the Ismail Matraimov Public Foundation against Toktakunov and the media outlets, who, according to the plaintiffs, damaged their "honor, dignity, and business reputations."
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly had called the court decision to block the accounts "an outrageous assault on Azattyk’s operations and independence, and a threat to Azattyk reporters and staff."
"It also contradicts President [Sooronbai] Jeenbekov’s firm pledge, made to me personally in August, to support independent journalism and combat corruption in Kyrgyzstan," Fly said on December 12.
The court has said the plaintiffs are demanding 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 as compensation for the alleged damages.
The Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office last month launched a probe to verify information revealed in the joint investigation.
The report showed that a 37-year-old Uyghur businessman from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, Aierken Saimaiti, secretly provided reporters with documents demonstrating how hundreds of millions of dollars were moved out of Kyrgyzstan, much of it via a business network led by Khabibula Abdukadyr, a secretive Chinese-born Uyghur with a Kazakh passport.
The chief of Kyrgyzstan's financial police has said since then that the amount of cash illegally funneled out of the country is close to $1 billion.
The joint investigation also uncovered video footage showing Abdukadyr sitting in the second row at Jeenbekov's inauguration in November 2017. The video shows Abdukadyr sitting next to the president's brother, Kyrgyz Ambassador to Ukraine Jusupbek Sharipov.
Saimaiti, who was shot dead in Istanbul on November 10, alleged that former senior official Raimbek Matraimov, while serving as Kyrgyzstan's deputy chief of customs, was instrumental in providing cover for the Abdukadyr network’s cargo empire in the region.
The investigation also found that Matraimov’s wife, Uulkan Turgunova, is a joint investor in a Dubai property development with a company controlled by Abdukadyr.
Matraimov and his brother, Kyrgyz lawmaker Iskender Matraimov, have denied accusations of wrongdoing by the former customs official.
Saimaiti told reporters prior to his death that, in order to protect himself, he had applied for Turkish citizenship and expected to receive it on November 14. He said he planned to turn over more financial documents to reporters after that.
He was shot dead at a cafe in Istanbul.
Turkish police have made several arrests in the case, though details of the suspects' motives and potential contacts remain murky. Turkish police have made no official statements on the case.
The Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General’s Office said on November 22 that it had launched a probe to verify information revealed in the joint investigation, specifically that “unknown persons repeatedly threatened [Saimaiti] with murder, which forced him to flee to the Republic of Turkey."