A money launderer told journalists what he knew about a secretive smuggling empire and a senior Kyrgyz official who enabled it. Now, leaked documents shed light on his shocking murder.
One year ago this week, Aierken Saimaiti, a self-confessed money launderer, was gunned down in an Istanbul cafe.
Turkish police have pointed to religious extremism as the motive for the crime. Two of the four alleged killers, who remain in custody pending trial, have been described by police as Islamist militants who said they murdered Saimaiti because “he was not a Muslim.”
There were already ample reasons to suspect that this was not the whole story.
Before his assassination-style shooting, the 37-year-old, Chinese-born Uyghur had provided journalists with a trove of records attesting to his role in funneling hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan for a secretive smuggling syndicate.
Ensuing investigations by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, OCCRP, and Kloop implicated Raimbek Matraimov, the Central Asian country’s former deputy customs chief, and Khabibula Abdukadyr, the cargo tycoon with whom he did business, as being at the heart of the corruption Saimaiti revealed.
Before his murder, a frightened Saimaiti told reporters that he had been warned not to reveal any more of Matraimov’s secrets. “If you share them, we will kill you,” he recalled being told.
Now, Turkish police records leaked to reporters, including a statement made by Saimaiti’s widow and transcripts of his alleged killers’ interrogations, offer additional details that shed serious doubt on the extremism narrative.
According to the man who pulled the trigger, he was hired by a militant to carry out a contract-style killing. The gunman said the religious pretext had been fed to him by this man. Moreover, the records show that just a day after the murder, Saimaiti’s wife, Wufuli Bumailiyamu, pointed to Matraimov and Abdukadyr, the men whose affairs her husband had revealed to journalists, as the orchestrators of the killing.
“He told me if something happens to him, I should tell all these events to the police, and that he would be killed by these people,” Bumailiyamu said.
The extent to which the Turkish police have pursued these leads, or may yet pursue them, is unclear. The records do show that the police asked the alleged gunman about Abdukadyr, but he said he did not know him.
When reached by reporters, Bumailiyamu did not deny the authenticity of the testimony, but declined to comment on Matraimov or Abdukadyr. Neither Abdukadyr nor Turkish police responded to requests for comment.
In an e-mail to reporters, Matraimov said he had “no connection” with Saimaiti’s death and claimed that the Turkish police had already brought those responsible to justice, though there is no indication that a trial has taken place. He also claimed that, though he has visited Istanbul since the murder, he was never interrogated by Turkish police.
The Turkish police documents on which this story is based were leaked to reporters anonymously, though several were also posted in a Kyrgyzstan-focused Facebook group in early October.
Though Turkish police did not respond to inquiries about the documents, reporters were able to independently verify much of the information they contain.
A report about the Saimaiti murder investigation released by the Istanbul police department in March matches details in the leaked documents, including two identical quotes.
That report cites Bumailiyamu as testifying that her murdered husband “had problems” with two men, one with a “senior position” in Kyrgyzstan, though it does not mention Matraimov by name.
Another report published by a Kyrgyz parliamentary commission convened to examine the circumstances of Saimaiti’s murder provides further evidence of the leaked records’ authenticity. The report cites the testimonies of the four suspects which the commission received from the Turkish police — and numerous key details match the leaked records.
The report did not implicate Matraimov or Abdukadyr in the murder, and critics accused the commission of whitewashing Matraimov’s role in corrupt schemes. It’s not clear whether its members had access to the testimony by Saimaiti’s wife.
Kyrgyzstan’s deputy interior minister suggested in June that Turkey was withholding “full information” about the murder investigation.
On November 12, 2019, less than 48 hours after Saimaiti’s murder, police in the southern Turkish city of Adana announced that two men identified as Kyrgyz citizens, Huseyin Ahmetaliyev and Abdullah Enver, as well as a Syrian citizen, had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the slaying.
The Kyrgyz government has denied that Ahmetaliyev and Enver are Kyrgyz citizens.
The three men had been detained while attempting to cross the border into Syria, the police announced. A fourth suspect was later arrested after the alleged murder weapon was found in his home.
In a subsequent interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, Adnan Kilic, a senior Adana police official at the time, said that Ahmetaliyev and Enver had links to militant Islamic groups in Syria. He also told reporters the purported motive for Saimaiti’s killing: the victim’s lack of piety.
“During the interrogation, they said that they killed [Saimaiti] because he wasn’t a Muslim,” Kilic said.
But according to his own testimony, the accused killer did not know Saimaiti and was simply carrying out a contract hit. The purported religious motive, they said, was given to them by a Syria-based militant going by the name “Adem,” whom they described as the organizer of the operation.
“When I asked why we need to kill him, [Adem] said: ‘He is not Muslim, he is an infidel, his murder is necessary,’” Enver, the accused gunman, told Turkish police.
He said that Adem played a hands-on role in organizing the killing, from the finances down to coordinating taxi rides, and that Adem instructed him to travel to Istanbul to meet Ahmetaliyev, the other conspirator. Adem also provided Saimaiti’s photograph, address, and license-plate number, as well as $1,500 “for the road,” Enver said. Adem also promised the two men $50,000 each to carry out the hit.
Reporters were unable to establish Adem’s true identity. Enver described him as an Uzbek national, around 28 years old, clean-shaven with dark skin. Adem appeared to be well-off financially and had a wife and least one child.
Enver told police that he had met Adem at a militant training camp in Syria run by a group called Katiba al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Brigade of Monotheism and Holy War). Composed primarily of Uzbeks and men from other Central Asian nations, the organization had previously pledged allegiance to the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al-Qaeda.
Enver described Adem as an “administrative manager” with the terrorist group, handling issues such as the purchase of food, drinks, and firearms. Enver said that he himself had spent around five years with the group in Syria, receiving weapons training.
The leader of Katiba al-Tawhid wal-Jihad was Sirojiddin Mukhtarov, a 30-year-old native of Kyrgyzstan also known as Abu Saloh who has been accused of masterminding two terrorist attacks: an August 2016 suicide bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek and an April 2017 subway bombing in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Mukhtarov hails from the village of Kashgar-Kyshtak in the Kara-Suu district of Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region, which has long been a stronghold for the Matraimov family. (One of the other accused conspirators in Saimaiti’s killing, Ahmetaliyev, is also from Osh, according to his testimony.)
Mukhtarov stepped down as the group’s leader in 2019, according to a UN Security Council document.
Enver said he arrived in Istanbul three weeks before killing Saimaiti, and that upon his arrival his alleged accomplice, Ahmetaliyev, already had information about their target.
He said that they tracked Saimaiti’s movements for around two weeks.
The pair aborted their initial assassination attempt after getting cold feet, Enver testified. After that incident, he said, they called Adem to tell him what had happened.
“He said: ‘Shoot him. If you don’t shoot, return the money and the money that was spent on you.’ And we replied: ‘OK, we will kill him.’”
On the evening of November 10, 2019, they followed Saimaiti to the Kunlun Hotel, where he was sitting at an outdoor cafe with two friends, one of whom was the hotel’s owner.
It was Enver’s job to carry out the shooting, while Ahmetaliyev waited in the getaway car. According to Enver’s interrogation, he once again had qualms but decided to press on.
Security-camera footage shows him descending the stairs of the outdoor cafe toward Saimaiti shortly after 8 p.m., raising his weapon, and firing several times. He then sprints back up the stairs and climbs into a black vehicle that speeds away.
“I can’t remember how many times I shot him,” Enver told police.
If Enver’s timeline is accurate, Saimaiti’s final meeting with reporters, in late October 2019, took place just as his assassins picked up his trail.
In the meeting, which took place at Istanbul’s luxurious Ciragan Palace Kempinski hotel, he handed over another pile of documents that confirmed what he had been saying for some time. They showed how he wired money to destinations across the world on behalf of his employer, Abdukadyr, using false pretenses to conceal the illicit nature of the proceeds — which he said included bribes to Matraimov.
In an e-mail to reporters, Matraimov denied ever having any “financial or other contacts with Aierken Saimaiti.”
“I am tired of repeating that I had no connection with the subjects of your investigation,” he wrote.
Previous investigations in this series showed that among the documents Saimaiti provided to reporters were financial statements and wire-transfer records attesting to hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing to the Matraimov family foundation and payments for luxury real estate.
He failed to show up for a subsequent meeting, at which he had promised to provide more documents that would further implicate Matraimov. Initially, he gave no explanation for his absence. Later, he said that he had become too frightened to continue, and that the threats against him had been mounting. He did not meet with reporters again before he was killed, though he kept in touch and continued to provide other information.
In her testimony to Turkish police, Saimaiti’s widow, Bumailiyamu, recalled the previous year as a period of increasing pressure on her husband.
In her words, Matraimov and Abdukadyr were “threatening my husband with death all the time” over a financial dispute.
Earlier in the year, Saimaiti had passed an initial tranche of financial documents to a reporter from Radio Azattyk, which published an initial investigation in May 2019.
“After the interview,” Bumailiyamu told police, “the threats started to increase.”
She also alleged that Matraimov and Abdukadyr were “behind” the murder of a friend of her husband’s, whose bound and battered corpse was found in the trunk of his own car at Bishkek’s Manas International Airport three weeks before Saimaiti’s murder.
When she referred to Matraimov and Abdukadyr, Saimaiti’s widow did not use their legal names.
She referred to Matraimov as “Rahim,” a Turkish rendering of the shortened version of his first name, and mistakenly called him Kyrgyzstan’s “customs minister at that time.” (Matraimov was actually serving as deputy customs chief from 2015 to 2017.)
In the transcript of her statements, she refers to Abdukadyr as “Ebibullah Abdulkadar Pehlivan” — a possibly mistyped version of Abdukadyr’s name that included a Turkish version of the word “Palvan,” which is frequently used as a last name by his family. (Abdukadyr’s immediate relatives are known to use several last names, including Hadeer, Palvan, and Aibibula.)
However she referred to the two men, she seemed well aware of the nature of her husband’s business with them.
She described the two men as “very close friends and business partners,” as well as the “owners of cargo companies in Kyrgyzstan.”
“My husband was doing these people’s money transfers to Dubai, Germany, the United Kingdom, and America,” she told police.
While Bumailiyamu did not give the friend’s name in the testimony leaked to reporters, she was clearly referring to the case of Khusan Kerimov, a 39-year-old taxi driver who worked as a cash courier for Saimaiti.
Kerimov regularly ferried large sums of money in his carry-on baggage on flights from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey, Saimaiti told reporters. On the night the courier went missing, he was supposed to deliver $1.6 million in cash to Saimaiti in Istanbul but never arrived. Kyrgyz authorities have charged four men in connection with Kerimov’s murder, including two natives of Osh who remain at large, according to a Kyrgyz parliamentary commission report released in June.
“The person, who was a friend of my husband and taking our cash to Turkey, was murdered and our money was stolen at the airport,” Saimaiti’s wife told Turkish police.
“My husband also said those two people are behind this,” she added, referring to Matraimov and Abdukadyr.
In his e-mail to reporters, Matraimov denied any involvement in Kerimov’s death, saying that he had only learned of his name from news reports.
As reported in a previous investigation in this series, when couriers like Kerimov brought cash to Istanbul for Saimaiti, they sometimes declared it as belonging to an Abdukadyr company called Palvan Insaat Turizm Lojistik Sanayi Ticaret Limited.
Within weeks of the Istanbul police releasing their summary of the Saimaiti investigation, this company made a donation of nearly $170,000 to a campaign launched by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to help needy citizens during the coronavirus crisis. The company eventually became one of the campaign’s top donors.
The Turkish Family, Labor, and Social Services Ministry, which oversees the charity campaign, did not respond to a request for comment on the donation by Abdukadyr’s company and what due diligence, if any, was conducted regarding the firm.