Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has called for Kyrgyz authorities to investigate allegations by a former customs officer that his ex-boss urged him to bring a Kyrgyz Service journalist from the U.S.-funded broadcaster back to Kyrgyzstan "dead or alive."
Emilbek Kimsanov made the allegation in an undated video that was posted on Facebook on April 10 by his wife, Maria Zavorotnyaya.
In the video, Kimsanov says that former Kyrgyz State Customs Agency Deputy Chairman Raimbek Matraimov sent him contact information in Prague for RFE/RL journalist Ali Toktakunov along with the command to bring him "dead or alive." Kimsanov showed screenshots on his telephone with the information about Toktakunov.
“RFE/RL takes any threat against its journalists seriously," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement on April 11.
"The ongoing slanderous attacks and threats against Azattyk journalists by Raimbek Matraimov and his associates in response to our investigative reporting are reprehensible. I call on the Kyrgyz authorities to take this issue seriously and to ensure that those responsible are held accountable for their actions.”
Matraimov was not available to comment on the video.
His brother, Kyrgyz lawmaker Iskender Matraimov, dismissed the video in comments to RFE/RL.
"Kimsanov will answer not only before God, but also before the law," Iskender Matraimov said. "Let law enforcement check his statements. I would ask the people not to believe the claims of just anyone."
Millions Funneled Out Of Country
Toktakunov was the lead reporter in a joint investigation by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop.
The investigation, titled Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia, which implicated Raimbek Matraimov, chronicled how a 37-year-old Uyghur businessman from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, self-confessed money launderer Aierken Saimaiti, moved hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan.
Before his murder in Istanbul in November, Saimaiti alleged that widespread corruption in the Kyrgyz customs service where Kimsanov worked was crucial in generating illegal proceeds that were then spirited out of the country. He accused Matraimov of exploiting his position as deputy customs chief to skim millions of dollars in illicit funds. Matraimov and his relatives reject the claim.
At least $200,000 was transferred to the Matraimov family's charity in 2016 by Saimaiti's wife in what the murdered businessman described as dirty cash. The Matraimov family says the money was simply a charitable donation transferred on behalf of a businessman they have declined to identify.
Saimaiti also provided reporters with internal financial ledgers he maintained indicating that he had wired other funds for Matraimov's benefit. The Matraimov family has denied any relationship -- financial or otherwise -- with Saimaiti.
Credible Death Threats
Toktakunov has received credible death threats in connection with the investigation and has been named by Matraimov and his family as a defendant in a libel lawsuit. According to the OCCRP, as many as 12 people who reported on or criticized the Matraimov family over the last 10 months have been harassed.
Kimsanov was detained in St. Petersburg, Russia, in February and extradited to Kyrgyzstan. He faces charges connected to the 2018 beating of a son of former Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiev.
On March 31, a Kyrgyz court ordered Kimsanov transferred from house arrest to pretrial detention.
On April 8, Zavorotnyaya released a video statement in which she appealed to President Sooronbai Jeenbekov to protect her husband, claiming that the case against him had been trumped up by "an influential man of Kyrgyzstan." She did not mention the man's name.
However, Kimsanov's brother, Emirbek Kimsanov, earlier appealed to Jeenbekov to protect his brother from Matraimov and his family, who he said had been persecuting Emilbek Kimsanov for his refusal to participate in Matraimov's alleged illegal activity.
Jeenbekov's office has not responded to the appeals.
Emilbek Kimsanov's lawyer, Nazgul Suyunbaeva, said on April 8 that "unknown people" had threatened her client before his transfer to custody by saying, "We will put you behind bars where they are already waiting for you."
Suyunbaeva asked prison officials to look into the alleged threats against Kimsanov.
RFE/RL is funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) as a private grantee. It relies on its networks of local reporters to provide accurate news and information to more than 37 million people in 26 languages and 22 countries where media freedom is restricted, or where a professional press has not fully developed.