A joint team from RFE/RL's Radio Azattyk, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP,) and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop has been awarded the 2019 Tom Renner Award from U.S.-based Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) for a series of stories exposing massive outflows of cash from Kyrgyzstan, one of the world's poorest countries.
The IRE said on April 6 that the series, titled Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia, was "the true definition of revealing something that people do not want to be revealed to the point of murder -- and certainly danger for these journalists."
The joint media investigation 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, much of it via a business network led by Khabibula Abdukadyr, a secretive Chinese-born Uyghur with a Kazakh passport.
"This, to me, is the reason that there is a Renner award -- these crime syndicates that operate in the shadows, particularly in places that the world pays very little attention to. Most people have probably never even heard of this country, and more than $700 million was taken out of it by one guy," IRE judges said in explaining their decision.
Saimaiti was shot dead in Istanbul on November 10, but before his death he gave reporters documents that revealed the massive and systemic plunder of public funds from the Central Asian country.
The team spent months poring over Saimaiti's documents, following his leads, and reporting on the ground to corroborate as much as possible.
Together, the evidence tells the story of how a vast underground cargo empire run by the Abdukadyrs systematically funneled massive bribes to Kyrgyzstan's customs service. It also implicates Raimbek Matraimov, a former top customs official widely seen as so powerful that he was essentially untouchable. Matraimov has denied the allegations.
"This was a tireless and unflinching effort that combined the local expertise of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, with OCCRP's experience in anti-corruption reporting to reveal how staggering amounts of money were stolen from the Kyrgyz people," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said.
"It is an exceptional example of RFE/RL's mission and our commitment to report about public accountability and the rule of law across our coverage area. Despite the threats and attacks on our journalists because of this reporting, they were undeterred," he added.
The investigation also uncovered video footage showing Abdukadyr sitting in the second row at 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.
The investigation showed that Saimaiti knew so much because he had been a crucial player in the functioning of the patronage and money-laundering system he revealed.
The exposure of that system shows in unprecedented detail how a small clique enriched itself at the expense of the Kyrgyz people.
"It's a dangerous and often thankless job to write on this topic, but the reporters for RFE/RL and Kloop persevered to tell the last words of a dying source," said Drew Sullivan, co-founder and publisher of OCCRP.
"This is a global award that recognizes that commitment, and we are honored to share in it."