BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan's state security service has made unsubstantiated claims that reporters with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service received $100,000 from a self-proclaimed money launderer who served as the journalists' source in a major investigation into corruption in the Central Asian state.
The claim was made by investigators on June 2 at a parliamentary hearing into the murder of Aierken Saimaiti, a Chinese-born Uyghur businessman who funneled hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan over the course of several years.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said the allegations appeared to be "retaliation" against journalists "by corrupt individuals seeking to protect their wealth and power."
Prior to his killing in Istanbul in November, Saimaiti provided a trove of financial records to reporters showing how he moved the money out of Kyrgyzstan via murky wire transfers and cash couriers.
Following Saimaiti's death, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, OCCRP, and the Kyrgyz new site Kloop published an award-winning investigation based on these records and their own independent reporting, titled Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia.
The investigation, which also implicated former Kyrgyz State Customs Agency Deputy Chairman Raimbek Matraimov in widespread corruption linked to the money Saimaiti moved out of the country, triggered street protests in Kyrgyzstan following its publication in November.
Matraimov, an influential political power broker, and his family have denied any links to Saimaiti or corruption in the Kyrgyz customs service. He and his family have filed a libel suit over the investigation.
Sagynbek Samidin-uulu, head of the State Committee for National Security's (UKMK) investigative team, told the parliamentary commission that investigators obtained testimony from two witnesses who said Saimaiti had paid $100,000 to journalists from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk.
Asked by an Azattyk journalist whether investigators had other evidence of the purported payment, Samidin-uulu said they did not.
The lead reporter in the investigation, Ali Toktakunov of Radio Azattyk, has received credible death threats in connection with the publication and has been named along with Azattyk by Matraimov and his family as a defendant in the libel lawsuit.
RFE/RL's Fly said the allegations "appear to be the latest attempt in a longstanding campaign of retaliation against journalists by corrupt individuals seeking to protect their wealth and power."
"Indeed, Mr. Matraimov is currently suing Ali and our Kyrgyz Service, and earlier this year sought to freeze our Kyrgyz Service’s bank account," Fly said.
"We condemn such efforts to distort the truth, and once again call on Kyrgyz authorities to ensure that those responsible for threatening and attempting to intimidate the journalists related to this story are held accountable for their actions," he added.
Investigators said that prior to his death, Saimaiti was entangled in a conflict over money with Khabibula Abdukadyr, a secretive Uyghur businessman with a Kazakh passport who has built a murky cargo-and-real-estate empire in Central Asia, Europe, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
Saimaiti moved hundreds of millions of dollars throughout the world for Abdukadyr, who was virtually unknown to the broader public until the investigation by RFE/RL, OCCRP, and Kloop was published in November.
Citing testimony from the alleged witnesses, Samidin-uulu of the UKMK alleged that Saimaiti had hired journalists to pressure Abdukadyr to resolve their purported financial conflict.
One of the witnesses whose video testimony was shown to the hearing is Erkin Sopokov, Kyrgyzstan's former consul-general in Istanbul.
Sopokov's car was found parked near the Istanbul cafe where Saimaiti was slain on the night of the killing, and the diplomat was subsequently fired.
Following his dismissal and return to Kyrgyzstan, Sopokov was detained on suspicion of abuse of office for allowing Saimaiti and others to use the car. He was also accused of illegal enrichment.
Investigators provided no documentary or other evidence supporting the witnesses' claims, which included allegations that Saimaiti fabricated documents he provided to reporters.
OCCRP said in a statement that the UKMK had "focused squarely on investigating a murder victim -- one of the sources for the story -- and on the journalism itself."
"The agency relied on two witnesses, one who alleged that reporters had used fabricated documents and one who alleged improper behavior on the part of an RFE/RL reporter. Neither claim was backed by documentary evidence and both relied on hearsay," the OCCRP statement said.
The investigation by RFE/RL, OCCRP, and Kloop in April was awarded the prestigious 2019 Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, which recognizes outstanding reporting on organized crime.