BISHKEK -- Just hours after completing a dizzying rise to the presidency from a prison cell amid political turmoil, Sadyr Japarov pledged to get to the bottom of one of Kyrgyzstan's most notorious corruption schemes.
"Most importantly we will draw a line under the case of the transfer of $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan, and the main suspect Matraimov and other corruptionists will be punished before our country under the full strictness of the law," Japarov said in his first formal address to the country on October 16, 2020.
The new acting head of state was referring to the former deputy chief of the Kyrgyz Customs Service, Raimbek Matraimov, a reputed powerbroker in national politics that a joint media investigation had described as the gatekeeper of contraband and money-laundering schemes worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Matraimov would later be arrested and convicted of corruption by a Kyrgyz court.
But he spent very little time in pretrial detention and was allowed to walk free in lieu of what authorities said was his cooperation with the investigation and a reimbursement to the state of around $24 million in illicitly obtained funds.
That seemed well short of the "full strictness of the law" that could have seen him serve a jail term of 10 to 15 years for the crime he was found guilty of and others he has been accused of.
Iskender Matraimov (center) in a promotional video for the political party Mekenim Kyrgyzstan on October 2, 2020.
Yet Matraimov, sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act by the United States in December 2020, was at best only half of the story told by journalists from RFE/RL, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and the Kyrgyz outlet Kloop in late 2019.
Equally prominent in the investigation was Khabibula Abdukadyr, a Chinese-born, ethnic Uyghur businessman whom the journalists described as the head of an "underground cargo empire" that sent smuggled Chinese goods to markets in Kyrgyzstan and countries like Russia and Uzbekistan.
On March 10 of this year, Abdukadyr made his first known public appearance in Kyrgyzstan since the investigation put a spotlight on his name, and he did so alongside President Japarov at a ground-laying ceremony for a giant mosque in a village near Bishkek.
The images sparked anger in Kyrgyzstan, but the president brushed off these concerns in a now familiar manner in an interview with the state information agency Kabar.
Describing Abdukadyr as part of a group of investors preparing to invest $1.5 billion into projects in Bishkek, Japarov noted that Abdukadyr had not been convicted of a crime nor was there a warrant for his arrest.
"I'm not afraid of the opinions of various intriguer-journalists or other people," he said, after claiming there was no longer any corruption along Kyrgyzstan's border with China.
"The most important thing is that I haven't become corrupt, right? The people and God see everything."
Is All Money Good Money?
The connections between Abdukadyr and Matraimov were first affirmed by a man called Aierken Saimaiti, the media investigation's key witness, who told journalists that he served the Abdukadyrs as their main money launderer before falling foul of the family.
It was Saimaiti that oversaw the $700 million in international cash and wire transfers out of Kyrgyzstan, and who showed proof to journalists that he had made payments on behalf of the Abdukadyr family into the Matraimov's family foundation, named for Matraimov's father, Ismail Matraimov.
RFE/RL, OCCRP, and Kloop would later uncover evidence that Matraimov's wife and fellow sanctions subject Uulkan Turgunova was a joint investor in a Dubai property development together with one of the Abdukadyrs' companies.
But on November 10, 2019, just weeks after telling the journalists that he feared for his life during their last meeting with him -- when he shared documents revealing details of the illicit scheme -- Saimaiti was gunned down while sitting outside at a cafe in Istanbul.
Seven men with reported affiliations to a radical Islamic organization were handed sentences of up to life in prison by a Turkish court last year for the murder.
Turkish police records leaked to reporters showed that police heard Saimaiti's widow, Wufuli Bumailiyamu, testify about her husband's fear that Matraimov and Abdukadyr would kill him.
Matraimov told RFE/RL that he had no connection to the murder and had not been questioned by police despite having visited the country since Saimaiti's death.
Bektour Iskender, co-founder of Kloop, told RFE/RL in an interview that the photos of Japarov and Abukadyr together made a mockery of people that took to the streets of Bishkek in 2020, initially to protest the results of a parliamentary election that saw a Matraimov-linked party take a commanding share of the legislature.
It was during political chaos over this later-canceled vote that Japarov -- then serving a jail sentence for hostage-taking, was set free to claim victory in a battle for power as his supporters outnumbered and, in some cases, physically overpowered the supporters of his rivals.
Sadyr Japarov (center) attends an election rally in Tokmok on December 30, 2020
"This really clearly shows we did not have a revolution back then. [The movement] was stolen by organized crime," said Iskender.
"Of course, we already had many reasons to suspect this. But seeing these photos [of Abdukadyr and Japarov] just makes it so obvious."
Japarov's administration did not respond to a request from RFE/RL for comment.
Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) did not respond to a question about whether Abdukadyr had been questioned as part of the investigation that saw Matraimov sentenced.
Japarov is not the first Kyrgyz president that Abdukadyr has rubbed shoulders with.
Immediately after the award-winning investigation titled Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia was published, it was noted that a man strongly resembling Abdukadyr had attended the 2017 inauguration of Kyrgyzstan's fifth president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.
Then-Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov leaves after a parliamentary session at the Ala-Archa residence in Bishkek on October 16, 2020.
A video from the inauguration showed the man sitting next to Jeenbekov's brother Yusupbek, who was then the Kyrgyz ambassador to Ukraine.
Soon after that, a photo purporting to show Abdukadyr with his arm around Kyrgyzstan's fourth president, Almazbek Atambaev, circulated online.
Jeenbekov, who was president at the time the investigation was published, acknowledged that he had met Abdukadyr twice, once when he was governor of the Osh region that shares a border crossing with China, and another time "in Atambaev's office."
"I know many people, I have held so many investment forums to attract investors to Kyrgyzstan. Do we need investors?" he said at his end-of-year press conference while denying he had business relations with Abdukadyr and claiming that the seating arrangements for the inauguration had been planned by Atambaev's outgoing administration.
Atambaev, in turn, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that he had been introduced to Abdukadyr by Jeenbekov, the man he groomed as a successor but fell out badly with just months after handing over power.
"Khabibula is a God-fearing man. Why don't you ask him how we met? Sooronbai introduced us," Atambaev said.
Almazbek Atambaev (center) in Moldovanovka prison colony 27 on February 14, 2023,
Some have defended Japarov's work attracting investors to Kyrgyzstan.
Businessman Kadyr Saidilkan wrote on Facebook that other investment hotspots -- Singapore, Dubai, and Hong Kong had been built on "dirty money."
"I'm not interested in how an investor earned his money -- honestly or through dirty schemes. [Abdukadyr] himself can answer before God and the law," Saidilkan said.
Omurbek Suvanaliev, a politician and rival of Japarov during the 2020 power struggle, disagreed.
"Everyone knows how he made his money. And now he is returning as an investor," Suvanaliev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in an interview.
"Many politicians became entangled in relations with Abdukadyr. He sponsored many of them and feels himself at home here," he added.
According to Japarov's administration, the Bishkek mosque that Abdukadyr is helping to build will cost more than $50 million and hold 20,000 people.
When it is finished, it will be transferred to the ownership of Kyrgyzstan's government-endorsed Spiritual Board of Muslims, or Muftiate, Japarov said.
But Abdukadyr has a rival for the affections of Kyrgyzstan's clerics -- and one who clearly still has money to burn.
In August of last year, the sanctioned Ismail Matraimov Charitable Foundation said that it had begun work on the Muftiate's new headquarters in Bishkek.
"Muslims firmly believe that the future Muftiate [building] will be a modern building, no less modern than the buildings of the muftis of Turkey and Arabic countries," the foundation said on its Facebook page, including a photo of a grinning Matraimov praying next to the clerics.
The year before, not long after his conviction, Matraimov was shown alongside Kyrgyzstan's former mufti and other clerics at the opening of a 5,000-capacity mosque built in his Kara-Suu hometown by his foundation.
The Ismail Matraimov Charitable Foundation described that mosque as "the most beautiful mosque-madrasah not only in Kyrgyzstan, but in the entire Ferghana [Valley] region."
Written and reported by Chris Rickleton in Almaty with reporting by Toktosun Shambetov in Bishkek.
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036