BISHKEK -- A court in Bishkek has ruled to freeze the bank accounts of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, locally known as Azattyk, its correspondent, and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop following their joint investigation about possible widespread corruption in the country’s customs service and massive outflows of cash.
RFE/RL's office in Bishkek received a letter from the Sverdlov District Court on December 12 saying that, according to a December 10 ruling by Judge Ibraimova J.B., bank accounts belonging to RFE/RL correspondent Ali Toktakunov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, and Kloop 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 says, due to a lawsuit filed by Raimbek Matraimov, Iskender Matraimov, Minovar Jumaeva, Uulkan Turgunova, and the Ismail Matraimov Public Foundation against Toktakunov and the organizations involved, who, according to the plaintiffs, damaged their "honor, dignity, and business reputations."
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly insisted that the funds be released immediately.
"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 [Sooronbai] Jeenbekov’s firm pledge, made to me personally in August, to support independent journalism and combat corruption in Kyrgyzstan," he said.
According to the court ruling, 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 court ruling comes amid a probe launched by the Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office last month to verify information revealed in the joint investigation.
The investigative report revealed 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 Kyrgyz President Sooronbai 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, 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."