Turkish firms play intermediary role in Central Asian money laundering operation

When the Uighur businessman Aierken Saimaiti was murdered in Istanbul on Nov. 10 he was five days from obtaining Turkish citizenship, which he sought to protect himself from extradition.

The self-confessed money launderer had fallen out with his employers in Central Asia and was providing a joint journalistic investigation by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and its Kyrgyz member centre, Kloop, with documents and information outlining the sophisticated system he used to launder at least $700 million between 2011 and 2016.

Saimaiti’s murder prevented him from providing reporters with a final cache of records, but the information he did provide, corroborated by public records in several countries, opened a window into a sprawling operation to move the illicit proceeds of Khabibula Abdukadyr’s underground cargo empire into accounts and real estate in Germany, Britain, the United States, Dubai and beyond.

Once Saimaiti had moved the money out of Kyrgyzstan through a complex set of shell companies via wire transfers and couriers, Abdukadyr would then direct where the money should go, including to enrich the corrupt officials who facilitate illegal shipping operations in Kyrgyzstan.

Subsequent reporting in June indicated that several Turkish firms were used to channel money from Abdukadyr’s network into the charity of Raimbek Matraimov, a former Kyrgyz deputy customs chief who Saimaiti claims provided cover for the network’s operations in Kyrgyzstan.

Matraimov, who is considered untouchable in Kyrgyzstan due to his shadowy influence over national politics, denies the allegations but does acknowledge Saimaiti’s wife made donations to his charity.

Generating the Abdukadyr family’s illicit profits

Over a dozen businessmen told the RFE/RL and OCCRP investigation that trucks connected to the Abdukadyr family’s cargo empire were sped through border posts by Kyrgyz customs agents who otherwise obstructed competing companies.

Saimaiti also detailed how Kyrgyz officials would produce papers falsely describing expensive items as low-value commodities so as to minimise customs fees. Other fraudulent documents were made to declare the goods delivered to Kyrgyzstan as “in transit” to Uzbekistan, which was a cheap and illegal method to import them from China to Kyrgyzstan.

Although Abdukadyr trucks did deliver shipments to markets in Uzbekistan, many bearing transit papers would instead unload at a facility the Abdukadyr family operated in the village of Kashgar-Kyshtak near the Uzbek border. The illicit imports could either be sold in Kyrgyzstan or passed off as Kyrgyz-origin products to be shipped on to more lucrative markets in Kazakhstan and Russia. Passing off Chinese goods as Kyrgyz-origin allowed the operation to avoid Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) import fees.

Another branch of the cargo empire involved a bazaar in Noogardan-Atush, also near the Uzbek border, that was run by one of Saimaiti’s companies, Abdyraz. The Abdukadyr family’s Chinese companies signed contracts with Abdyraz to cover up the scheme to evade EEU fees.

The joint journalistic project explained, “Saimaiti provided reporters with five of the sales contracts. These documents, all signed within a span of just two months in 2014, show him agreeing to import a total of $114 million.”

“By contrast, the total turnover of Saimaiti’s bazaar over the last six years was just $16.5 million, according to his business partner, Naziya Turdalieva. The discrepancy highlights the scale of the scheme Saimaiti operated for the Abdukadyr family,” the report concluded.

For these customs schemes to function smoothly and generate huge sums of illicit proceeds, the Abdukadyr family required help from senior Kyrgyz officials. Saimaiti’s use of Turkish vehicles to funnel money into Raimbek Matraimov’s charity suggests the influential former customs boss played a pivotal role in facilitating the corrupt schemes.

Turkish offshore vehicles deliver kickbacks to senior Kyrgyz official’s charity

In response to the allegations that he played a key role in facilitating the Abdukadyr’s cargo empire and received kickbacks via his charity, Matraimov and his brother Iskander Matraimov, a Kyrgyz parliamentarian, filed a libel lawsuit against RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk, and Kloop.

The lawsuit ironically allowed RFE/RL to obtain U.S. bank records that further reveal Saimaiti’s involvement in moving corrupt proceeds into the Ismail Matraimov Public Foundation. In addition to $200,000 in donations made by Saimaiti’s wife, Wufuli Bumailiyamu, the bank records show a further $470,000 transferred to the Matraimov charity from individuals and firms in Turkey and Dubai linked to Saimaiti.

A preliminary investigation by Kyrgyzstan’s financial police states that the foundation had only ten donors between 2014 and 2019 for a total of $1.4 million, suggesting that Saimaiti facilitated over half of the foundation’s income. Saimaiti had told reporters that he wired nearly $2.4 million to the charity on behalf of the Abdukadyr family.

The Abdukadyrs are also partners with Matraimov’s wife, Uulkan Turgunova, on a luxury real estate project in Dubai. The discrepancy between Matraimov’s publicly disclosed salary and assets, disclosures required under Kyrgyz law, and the wealth of known properties and holdings he and his family own raises significant corruption red flags.

One of the donors to the Matraimov charity revealed by the U.S. bank records is Dilsat Artis, a Turkish citizen who transferred $170,000 to the foundation in 2015. Saimaiti told reporters that Artis conducted business for the Abdukadyr family in Turkey. Saimaiti’s ledgers suggest he wired Artis a total of $2.35 million over 13 separate transfers in 2014 and 2015. The bank account number listed in Saimaiti’s ledgers matches one in the recently obtained U.S. bank records.

Artis confirmed for the joint journalistic project that he has a long-standing business relationship with the Abdukadyrs. He told reporters that his wire transfers to the Matraimov charity represent zakat (Islamic alms giving) and that the payments from Saimaiti were for goods and service, but reporters could find no evidence that Artis conducted significant business in Central Asia at the time of the transfers.

Before his death, Saimaiti also told reporters, “There are my transfers, from Turkey and in the name of Turks, and of their companies. There’s $160,000 and $140,000.” Both transfers have now been confirmed by the U.S. bank records.

The records show wire transfers to the Matraimov charity for purportedly commercial purposes. A Dubai-based firm called Alwasl General Trading FZE wired $160,000 for the “purchase of electronics” and a Turkish firm called Star Crystal Kuyumculuk Gıda Tekstil Turizm Sanayi ve Ticaret Limited Şirketi wired $140,000 for the “payment of textile”.

A number of connections link Saimaiti to Star Crystal. A wire transfer receipt provided by Saimaiti shows a Kyrgyz firm he operated sent almost $500,000 to Star Crystal for “textile materials”.

Customs declarations from Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport in 2017 show that at least two of Saimaiti’s couriers stated that the cash and gold they were carrying belonged to Star Crystal. One courier was moving $800,000 in cash and the same month the other courier brought 10.48 kg of gold to Turkey.

Turkey served as a hub for Saimaiti’s money laundering operation

The donations to the Matraimov charity represent only part of the ill-gotten gains that the Abdukadyr family’s network laundered via Turkey. Saimaiti wired a total of $103 million to Turkey spread out over nearly a quarter of the 843 transactions in his published records. Money transfers made by Saimaiti that originated from either Kyrgyzstan or Turkey were received by Abdukadyr accounts and companies in over a dozen countries.

Using Saimaiti’s records, reporters found $75 million in European Union bank accounts owned by the Abdukadyr family or their companies, $31 million in the family’s Bank of America accounts, and $104 million wired to Dubai went to Abdukadyr family accounts and local real estate developers. The family’s AKA group shell companies in Germany reported holdings of at least $106 million in 2017. In addition to major commercial real estate investments like the one shared with Matraimov’s wife, Abdukadyr family members have purchased luxury properties in Dubai, London, Los Angeles, near Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

The database of Saimaiti’s records offers only a partial look at the Abdukadyr family’s vast holdings, but it provides enough detail to illustrate the key intermediary role that firms and individuals in Turkey played in connecting the Abdukadyr family’s illicit cargo empire in Central Asia to their real estate empire across Europe, the United States, and Dubai.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.