A recent investigative report revealing a massive smuggling scheme in Kyrgyzstan has reverberated throughout this Central Asian nation, mobilizing public attention around crippling graft in a poor country sandwiched between Russia and China. The impact, however, has come at a price. Ali Toktakunov, the journalist leading the investigative team, has received threats on his life.
Toktakunov, a veteran journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, received a credible death threat in February. The threat followed the publication last November of the report, Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia, an exhaustive effort by RFE/RL, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and OCCRP’s Kyrgyz member center, Kloop. Toktakunov, who had broken the story in an initial report last May, had no doubt about the seriousness of the threat: 10 days before the report was released in November 2019, his key source was shot and killed in broad daylight in an Istanbul cafe.
The six-part investigative report amassed evidence documenting how a powerful Uyghur family operated an underground cargo empire that moved undeclared and falsely labeled goods from China into Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and other Central Asian states, and how this network systematically funneled upwards of $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan into Turkey and beyond. It documented further how the funds were deposited in bank accounts and laundered in real estate investments in the United Arab Emirates, Europe, and the United States. The report exposes the alleged central role of former Customs Service Deputy Director Raimbek Matraimov and other Kyrgyz government officials in facilitating the system.
The murder of Aierken Saimaiti, a key source of information about Matraimov’s role in the network, left no question about the dangers associated with the investigation. Saimaiti had previously told reporters that he had received death threats because of the evidence he had.
The risks were also amply reflected in a slew of intimidation tactics targeting numerous reporters and activists associated with the expanding investigation. Toktakunov and his colleagues were repeatedly warned by intermediaries with connections to the Matraimov family to drop the investigation. One such message came from a member of parliament claiming to convey a warning from Iskender Matraimov, Raimbek’s eldest brother and an influential member of parliament in his own right.
A July 2019 video posted on an anonymous Facebook page was the first in a series of menacing and defamatory posts intended to pressure Venera Djumataeva, a Radio Azattyk director and Toktakunov’s editor, to abandon the report. The video, republished on several other social media accounts, alleged that Djumataeva had been given a posh residence by former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in exchange for her loyalty. In other messages, Radio Azattyk editors were told that their close relatives in Kyrgyzstan should change their addresses; Toktakunov, who has resided in the Czech Republic for years, was warned that he would be in danger if he visited Kyrgyzstan.
In further efforts to intimidate reporters, Kyrgyz authorities abruptly announced an investigation against Ydyrys Isakov, an Azattyk correspondent in the Matraimovs’ native city of Osh, who began to receive a series of disturbing phone calls. Azattyk cameraman Aibek Kulchumanov was physically assaulted in Osh and his equipment was seized in an incident that local police pledged to investigate, though no demonstrable action has been taken. Several months later, the editor of the local Kyrgyz outlet factcheck.kg, which published a separate investigation into the Matraimov family’s wealth, was savagely beaten; journalists with Kloop, which partnered in the investigation, were subject to threats. According to OCCRP, as many as 12 people who reported on or publicly criticized the Matraimov family over the last ten months have been harassed.
Saimaiti’s murder in November prompted the project’s editorial team to speed up the report’s release, reasoning that its journalists were less likely to be targeted if the material they possessed was now in the public domain. Accordingly, on November 21, Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia was published.
The public response to the report was swift. A protest against corruption was soon mounted online, and was followed by demonstrations near the Kyrgyz parliament building that continued into December and drew over 1,000 protesters who chanted, “Down with Raim!”
The Matraimovs also reacted quickly. Members of the family filed a defamation suit in December against Toktakunov, Radio Azattyk, Kloop, and 24.kg, an outlet that published summaries of the investigation. In conjunction with the lawsuit, the bank accounts of all three media outlets were suspended by a Bishkek district court. The accounts were unfrozen after an international outcry forced the Matraimovs to drop part of their complaint, but the trial is set to proceed in April.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty is a private, independent international news organization whose programs — radio, Internet, television, and mobile — reach influential audiences in 23 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through USAGM.