BISHKEK -- Hundreds of protesters have gathered in the Kyrgyz capital to urge the government to respect freedom of speech and investigate allegations of corruption in the customs service that have sparked public outcry in the Central Asian nation in recent weeks.
The December 18 rally on Bishkek's central Ala-Too Square comes after RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known in the country as Azattyk, the OCCRP, and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop published a joint investigation last month about possible large-scale corruption in the customs service and massive outflows of cash from the country.
The demonstrators called for "punishment" for those at the center of the media investigation, chanting slogans such as "Thieves must stay in jail," "Free speech now, "Hands off Azattyk," and "Reforms must be real."
WATCH: Kyrgyz Protesters Demand Corruption Probe, Call For Press Freedom
Some of them held pictures of the customs’ former deputy chief Raiymbek Matraimov with the inscription "Must Be Jailed."
The protesters signed a petition demanding resignation of Prosecutor-General Otkurbek Jamshitov for what they called his "reluctance” to look into the probe.
About 2,000 people participated in a similar protest rally held in Bishkek on November 25.
On December 12, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service learned that Matraimov's family had filed a lawsuit against RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, one of its correspondents, Kloop, and another independent news website, 24.kg, which published a summary of the joint media investigation.
The investigation 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 Matraimov, while serving as Kyrgyz customs' deputy chief, was instrumental in providing cover for the Abdukadyr network’s cargo empire in the region.
Matraimov has denied accusations of wrongdoing.
The Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General’s Office has said it had launched a probe to verify information revealed in the investigation.
The Kyrgyz president's spokeswoman, Tolgonai Stamalieva, said that Jeenbekov never had any joint business projects with Abdukadyr.