A powerful Uyghur family exploited a cash courier system widely used by Kyrgyz merchants to move millions of U.S. dollars out of Kyrgyzstan into Turkey — and beyond.
A network of underground cash couriers used by Kyrgyz market vendors for decades has been exploited by a powerful family for its own needs.
While bazaar traders employed the couriers’ services primarily to purchase foreign goods, the shadowy Abdukadyr clan used them to secretly funnel millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan.
On the orders of Aierken Saimaiti, the family’s self-confessed money launderer, the Abdukadyrs’ couriers made their trips from Bishkek to Istanbul just as if they were carrying cash for the usual small-time clients.
But the similarity ended there.
The Abdukadyrs’ money wasn’t used to purchase textiles or gadgets. Instead, after it was safely removed from Kyrgyzstan and bore no trace of its origins, the money was wired to destinations across the world for the family’s benefit.
“I [transferred money] to Germany, England, and Dubai,” Saimaiti said.
Because the origins of the money lie in the Abdukadyrs’ underground cargo empire, at least a portion of it represents years of unpaid taxes and customs fees, a significant financial loss to the Kyrgyz public. (And the money the Abdukadyrs sent through couriers was just a portion of the $700 million Saimaiti funneled for them out of Kyrgyzstan.)
Saimati’s records also enabled reporters to piece together how the Abdukadyrs ran their underground cargo business, which flourished by moving undeclared and falsely labeled goods from China into Kyrgyzstan, and then bringing them to market in bazaars across Central Asia and Russia.
A portion of the Abdukadyrs’ money was also wired back to Kyrgyzstan. One recipient was the family foundation of Raimbek Matraimov, a powerful former deputy customs chief. On multiple occasions, Saimaiti implicated Matraimov as an Abdukadyr ally and facilitator of grand corruption within the Kyrgyz customs service. Matraimov has publicly denied these allegations, but did not reply to requests for comment for this story.
The records on which this investigation is based were shared with reporters by Saimaiti. He was murdered in Istanbul last month.
Among the records Saimaiti provided were 48 cash declaration forms his couriers had filled out. Of these, 31 were filled out by couriers who worked for him during his period of employment for the Abdukadyrs. And in 22 cases, the couriers indicated that the money they were carrying belonged to Palvan, a Turkish company owned by the Abdukadyrs.
These 31 documents show the couriers declaring a total of $27 million upon arrival in Istanbul over the course of just two months, September and October 2016. (This does not necessarily mean this money was deposited in Palvan’s accounts. It may have been deposited into Saimaiti’s accounts or gone elsewhere.)
The Turkish business registry confirms that a company called Palvan Insaat Turizm Lojistik Sanayi Ticaret LTD was partially owned at various points by Khabibula Abdukadyr, the head of the Abdukadyr family, and his relatives, including his two sons.
Khabibula’s wife’s name is Mariya Palvan.
As the couriers brought the Abdukadyrs’ proceeds to Istanbul, Saimaiti met them at the airport and took at least some of the cash to the bank, where he deposited it into accounts belonging to himself, his wife, or Abdukadyr companies like Palvan.
Saimaiti said he used his couriers’ cash declaration forms to demonstrate to bank clerks that the money was of legitimate origin. “There was a declaration showing that the money came from Kyrgyzstan,” he said. “I presented that airport [declaration form]. Then I put the money into my account.”
Now that their money was safely deposited in a Turkish account, the Abdukadyr family could use it for whatever they wanted. For example, according to an import database, Palvan sent 29 pieces of furniture this year to another Abdukadyr company in the United States. The items were delivered to Baltimore.
In other cases, Saimaiti wired the family’s money abroad himself, at their instructions, to enable them to make payments to unknown companies and funnel funds into investments.
For example, Saimaiti shared with reporters Turkish wire transfer documents showing at least 1 million British pounds being wired to the United Kingdom. The “details of payment” section on two of the documents included the address of a property and the name ‘Aibibula Nuermaimaiti,’ one of the sons of Khabibula Abdukadyr, the 55-year-old head of the family.
Abdukadyr’s immediate relatives use several last names, including Hadeer, Palvan, and Aibibula. For simplicity, the members of the family connected to their business network are referred to in this story as the Abdukadyrs because Khabibula Abdukadyr is the head of their empire.
Saimaiti also provided wire transfer slips showing himself and his wife sending money from Turkey to Abdukadyr companies in Kazakhstan and Germany.
Still other wire transfers show Saimaiti sending $2.4 million from Turkey to a Kyrgyz charitable foundation established by the family of Raimbek Matraimov. Saimaiti said at least half of this money had been brought to Turkey by courier.
An Abdukadyr real estate investment in Dubai also provides the first evidence of a formal business connection between this family and the Matraimovs.
“[They ordered me] to send it as [a charitable donation]. We transferred it also in the name of my wife,” he said. “[I was told] to do the transfers in the name of this one, or that one. One time from mine, another time from another’s [account].... It turns out it looks like a charitable donation.”
The transfers to the Matraimovs’ foundation appear in a ledger Saimaiti said he used to keep track of his financial operations. The document covers the period between August 2016 and February 2017.
The Matraimov family has denied receiving the $2.4 million in transfers, conceding only that about $200,000 was sent to the foundation by Saimaiti's wife on behalf of a purported donor they have declined to publicly identify.
One of the couriers identified by Saimaiti, Erkinbek Aidarov, is a customs officer himself. The 36-year-old works as an inspector at a railroad customs point in southern Kyrgyzstan.
He also has higher connections. His older brother, Zaparbek (“Zafar”) Aidarov, is a lieutenant colonel in the customs service and the chief inspector in its Bishkek office. According to Kyrgyz media reports, Zaparbek — a mixed martial arts fighter who took part in a championship as a representative of the customs service — is an enforcer for Raimbek Matraimov, the former customs official implicated as an important figure in the service’s corruption.
According to one of Saimaiti’s cash declaration forms, Erkinbek Aidarov brought $715,200 on a trip to Turkey on March 25, 2016. The origin of the money, the customs officer claimed on the form, was his own personal income. But he owns no companies that could account for his possession of such a large sum, according to the Kyrgyz business registry. Nor would his official salary of less than $200 explain such a large amount.
In a brief interview, Erkinbek Aidarov denied working as a courier. “I haven’t heard of that. I don’t even know,” he said, and hung up the phone. But Saimaiti described him as one of his regulars and said he was one of the couriers who carried money for the Abdukadyr family.
In addition to bringing cash to Turkey, Saimaiti said his couriers occasionally brought gold to Dubai and Turkey. He provided two customs declarations and dozens of photographs as proof of the Turkey deliveries. Some of the gold, he alleged, was carried by a person close to Matraimov, who did not respond to a request for comment about this claim. Another portion was carried by one of Saimaiti’s couriers who also carried money for the Abdukadyrs.
Neither Abdukadyr nor his representatives have responded to questions about Saimaiti's money-laundering allegations or the family's relationship with the murdered businessman.
“Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia” is a joint effort by Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; OCCRP; and OCCRP's Kyrgyz member center, Kloop. Over two dozen journalists from these organizations worked for months to make the investigation possible. Due to multiple threats received by reporters and editors over this period, their names are not disclosed.
Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia