Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia

By RFE/RL, OCCRP, and Kloop

November 21, 2019 (updated June 29, 2020)

Over the span of five years, one man funneled hundreds of millions of dollars out of Central Asia. What he knew may have cost him his life. But before his murder, he shared with reporters a trove of documents that reveal the source of this colossal wealth: A secretive family that ran an underground cargo empire with the help of a powerful political patron.

“I’m Aierken Saimaiti,” the man said. “Between 2011 and 2016, I transferred more than $700 million from Kyrgyzstan.”

Just a few months after this conversation with a journalist, Saimaiti was murdered.

But before his death, he gave reporters documents that revealed the massive and systemic plunder of public funds from one of the poorest countries on Earth.

The 'Beautiful' Life Of A Kyrgyz Customs Official

Raimbek Matraimov is a powerful Kyrgyz political operator known for his massive wealth. This investigation into his wife’s social-media accounts reveals the opulent lifestyle his family enjoyed, even as he declared only a modest salary in the country’s customs service.

The Matraimovs’ Dubai Apartment

Here’s how reporters used open-source investigative techniques to discover a new property apparently owned by the Matraimov family, a luxurious penthouse apartment in Dubai.

The Kolbaev Connection

A private resort village on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul is among the clues that connect former Kyrgyz customs boss Raimbek Matraimov and notorious criminal leader Kamchy Kolbaev.

The Matraimovs’ Karven Cottage

Reporters used open-source investigative techniques to discover a cottage the Matraimov family frequented near Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s biggest tourist destination.

'His Murder Is Necessary': Man Who Exposed Kyrgyz Smuggling Scheme Was Hunted By Contract Killers

A money launderer told journalists what he knew about a secretive smuggling empire and a senior Kyrgyz official who enabled it. Now, leaked documents shed light on his shocking murder.

Powerful Kyrgyz Family’s Charity Received Suspect Funds Linked To Murdered Money Launderer

Nearly half of the donations received by a well-known Kyrgyz charity run by the powerful Matraimov family have been linked to an illicit underground network.

The Mystery Of The Missing 5.6 Million Pounds

One of the last claims made by Aierken Saimaiti, a self-confessed money launderer who was murdered in Istanbul last November, was that he sent millions of pounds to London for a powerful former Kyr...

Saimaiti’s Archive

This investigative series is based, in part, on a trove of documents given to reporters by murdered money launderer Aierken Saimaiti. Here, for the first time, the documents he provided are presented.

A Real Estate Empire Built On Dark Money

The Abdukadyr family made millions on the back of an illicit Central Asian cargo business. Now we know where the money ended up: exclusive villas, gleaming high-rises, and phantom investments acros...

The Dark-Money Men

For years, a network of informal couriers has funneled millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan in cold, hard cash. The underground money transfer system fuels corruption, destroys transparency -- and...

The Abdukadyrs’ Cash Couriers

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 Promise Cut Short

Despite receiving a death threat, the operator of a massive Kyrgyz money-laundering scheme shared hundreds of documents to corroborate what he knew. He promised even more — but then he was murdered.

The Dubai Partnership

The wife of Raimbek Matraimov, a powerful former Kyrgyz customs chief, has a joint investment in Dubai with a shadowy Uyghur family, the Abdukadyrs. Back in Central Asia, that family has built a ca...

The $700 Million Man

Over the span of five years, one man funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars out of Central Asia. What he knew may have cost him his life. But before his murder, he shared with reporters a trove ...

A joint team from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, OCCRP, and its Kyrgyz member center, Kloop, spent months poring over Saimaiti's documents, following his leads, and reporting on the ground to corroborate as much as possible. Together, this evidence tells the story of how a vast underground cargo empire run by the Abdukadyrs, a secretive Uyghur clan, 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 is essentially untouchable.

Along the way, Kyrgyz journalists involved in the project received credible threats to their safety and found themselves under surveillance. This made publication a matter of not only public interest, but physical safety. Saimaiti’s murder increased this urgency. Reporters spent the 11 days after his death working around the clock to piece together, verify, and publish the story he had been trying to tell.

Saimaiti knew so much because he had been a crucial player in the functioning of the patronage and money laundering system he revealed. But he was determined to expose that system. This investigative project will stand as his final word, showing in unprecedented detail how a small clique enriched itself at the expense of the Kyrgyz people.

Project Credits

“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.