From a murder in Istanbul to a revolution in Kyrgyzstan, kleptocracy wreaks havoc

Shot to death at an Istanbul café one year ago, Aierken Saimaiti’s story provides a glimpse into the shadowy world of organized crime and kleptocracy – the systematic theft of public wealth by corrupt government officials. 

Shortly after the Chinese-born Uighur was murdered last November, Turkish police announced they had arrested several suspects. Two self-identified Kyrgyz citizens, Huseyin Ahmetaliyev and Abdullah Enver, and a Syrian citizen were detained while attempting to cross the border into Syria. The three men and a fourth suspect found in possession of the murder weapon were charged in connection with the killing and are awaiting trial.

Turkish authorities quickly identified religious extremism as the motive for the murder. At the time, a senior Adana police official, Adnan Kilic, told reporters that the suspects said they killed Saimaiti because he was not a Muslim. The investigation has otherwise been opaque.

However, the extremism argument appeared thin from the start and leaked Turkish police records published last week cast further doubt on this explanation. It is more likely that Saimaiti was killed due to his decision to expose a global money laundering operation spanning jurisdictions across the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Prior to his death Saimaiti was providing a joint journalistic investigation by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and its Kyrgyz member centre, Kloop, with documents and information outlining the scheme he used to launder at least $700 million between 2011 and 2016.

Corroborated by public records in several countries, the evidence Saimaiti provided outlines how he laundered the profits of an illicit Central Asian shipping network controlled by Uighur businessman Khabibula Abdukadyr. Using Turkey as an intermediary hub, Saimaiti funneled the money into accounts and real estate in Germany, Britain, the United States, Dubai and elsewhere.

The OCCRP and RFE/RL also reported that just weeks after the Istanbul police released their summary of the Saimaiti murder investigation, a Turkish company owned by Abdukadyr and implicated in the money laundering scheme Saimaiti managed donated $170,000 to the coronavirus charity campaign launched by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and soon became a top donor to the campaign.

The consequences of the Abdukadyr cargo empire stretch beyond Turkey. The investigation prompted anti-corruption protests in Kyrgyzstan last year following revelations detailing the key role former Kyrgyz deputy customs chief Raimbek Matraimov played in facilitating the corruption that made Abdukadyr’s smuggling possible.

Public outrage with the Kyrgyz kleptocracy that Matraimov embodies continued to simmer until it erupted following parliamentary elections last month tainted by widespread vote-buying on behalf of pro-government parties including Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, which is allegedly financed by Matraimov. The protests kicked off a dramatic series of events in which election officials voided the results and senior leaders, including President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, resigned.

Most spectacularly, Sadyr Japarov, who was serving an 11-year sentence for kidnapping a political rival, went from being broken out of jail during the anarchy of the protests to becoming both the prime minister and the acting president in just ten days. In his first major speech as acting president he declared that he would fight corruption and said that Matraimov would “face justice”.

After turning himself in to the Kyrgyz authorities on October 20, Matraimov was released to house arrest and officials said he was paying back approximately $24 million he owed to the state. However, despite providing the veneer of justice, it is not clear that Matraimov is indeed facing significant consequences for either his role in transnational kleptocratic schemes or election fraud.

The day after Matraimov was placed under house arrest, Japarov announced a legally dubious “economic amnesty” for any corrupt official who came forward within 30 days and returned the proceeds of their graft. Japarov has since stepped down from the acting presidency to be eligible to run for a six-year term in the new presidential election scheduled for January.

The Kyrgyz authorities have not presented a detailed explanation for why Matraimov owes the state money and Matraimov has offered no confession. If he is not being charged with any crime, why is he required to pay anything and how was the amount determined? There has been no acknowledgement of the minimum $700 million money laundering scheme he participated in, which indicates the loss of state wealth is far greater than $24 million. 

The leaked Turkish police records of the Saimaiti murder investigation include the testimony of his wife, Wufuli Bumailiyamu, who told investigators that Matraimov and Abdukadyr were “threatening my husband with death all the time” over a financial dispute. It is not clear how extensively the Turkish police have pursued the apparent connections between the murder and transnational kleptocracy.

Leaked transcripts of the suspects’ interrogations show that police did ask the gunman, Enver, about Abdukadyr, but he denied knowing the Uighur businessman. He said he and his accomplice, Ahmetaliyev, were hired in Syria by a militant of Central Asian origin going by the name “Adem”. The man offered the pair $50,000 each to carry out the assassination.

When Enver asked Adem why he wanted Saimaiti killed, the militant said, “He is not Muslim, he is an infidel, his murder is necessary.” The Turkish authorities appear to have focused on this testimony to craft their religious extremism theory, but the transcripts show that the murder was a contract hit. Adem’s identity is unknown as are any connections he may have to Matraimov or Abdukadyr.

Kyrgyzstan’s political upheaval and the brazen assassination of Saimaiti in Istanbul are just the most visible collateral damage of kleptocracy. So long as money launderers like Saimaiti have easy access to banking and real estate in the United States and Europe, kleptocrats like Matraimov will continue to distort and degrade governance as they partner with transnational criminals like Abdukadyr.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden indicated on the campaign trail that he takes the issue of kleptocracy seriously. In January, he outlined his plan to convene a “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office to secure “significant new country commitments in three areas: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.”

He elaborated that he “will lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system, go after illicit tax havens, seize stolen assets, and make it more difficult for leaders who steal from their people to hide behind anonymous front companies.”