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.
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.
“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.
RFE/RL journalists report the news in 22 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. We provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate. RFE/RL is registered with the IRS as a private, nonprofit Sec. 501(c)3 corporation, and is funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) as a private grantee. RFE/RL's editorial independence is protected by U.S. law.