BISHKEK -- A hearing has resumed into a libel lawsuit filed against RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, locally known as Azattyk, its correspondent Ali Toktakunov, and the news site Kloop, by the former deputy chief of the customs service Raimbek Matraimov and his relatives following an alleged corruption scandal exposed by the media outlets.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Kanatbek Aziz, said at the hearing in the Sverdlov District Court on January 29 that his clients had decided to withdraw their suit against another independent news website, 24.kg, which published a summary of the joint media investigation.
According to Aziz, the decision was made after 24.kg agreed to add sentences to its materials explaining that the reports were not their own, but instead came from other media outlets.
RFE/RL's lawyer, Akmat Alagushev, asked the Judge Jyldyz Ibraimova to move the hearing to Bishkek's Lenin District since 24.kg was the only defendant located in the Sverdlov region.
The judge rejected the request.
The hearing started on January 20 but was quickly adjourned until January 29 after the plaintiffs' lawyers asked for more time for talks on a possible settlement, namely the publication of an official rebuttal refuting the findings of the joint investigation.
Lawyers for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Kloop have rejected such a move, but they have offered the plaintiffs an opportunity to discuss the investigation on programs of the media outlets.
A lawyer for 24.kg said that his client is ready to discuss settlement conditions with the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit was filed by Matraimov, his brother, lawmaker 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."
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.
In November 2019, the Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office launched a probe to verify information revealed in the joint journalistic 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 closer 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 Kyrgyz customs' deputy chief, 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, Iskender Matraimov, have denied all 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.
However, he was shot dead at a cafe in Istanbul before that happened. 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."
On January 29, Paris-based Reporters Without Border watchdog called the lawsuit "absurd" and urged "the Kyrgyz authorities to do whatever is necessary to guarantee the safety of the journalists working on the story."