The 700-Million-Dollar Man
22 Nov 2019

On Istanbul’s European side, the Ottoman-era Çırağan Palace rises grandly above the waters of the Bosphorus. Once, the servants of Sultan Abdülâziz hurried up and down its marble halls. After a fire gutted the interior in 1909, it was left in ruins for years, its garden used as a football pitch.

Today, Çırağan hosts the Kempinski, a five-star hotel where the rich and ultra-rich dine on oysters, lounge by the infinity pool, and pose for photos in front of an ornate 17th-century gate.

But on one warm day in late October, a more unusual pair sat at an upscale Italian restaurant by the palace’s famous garden. The two men spoke for hours, occasionally glancing up to see if anyone was watching, with a pile of papers spread out on the table between them.

One was a journalist. The other was Aierken Saimaiti, a polite, talkative 37-year-old car rental agent who had arrived in Istanbul from his home in Kyrgyzstan two years earlier.

Nothing about Saimaiti’s appearance betrayed his many secrets. But just days earlier, one of his employees had been beaten to death back home. And now, worried for his own safety, he was ready to make his real business — and his clients — fully public.

By his own admission, Saimaiti was a professional money launderer. Within a span of five years, he was responsible for moving a staggering total — at least $700 million in wire transfers and cash — from Kyrgyzstan to a dozen countries across the world. To ensure secrecy, the wire transfers were backed by sham contracts and the cash flown by working-class couriers who declared it as their own. The operation represented a massive underground flow of money that is particularly striking considering that Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries on earth.

Saimaiti kept detailed records which, over the course of several months in the spring and summer, he had begun to share. As his trust grew, so did the volume of the evidence he provided. Reporters from RFE/RL, OCCRP, and its Kyrgyz member center, Kloop, spent months poring over his documents and conducting further research to corroborate as much as possible. The resulting investigation confirms many of Saimaiti’s central claims.

Much of the money he sent abroad, the reporting confirms, flowed into a network of companies run by Khabibula Abdukadyr, the 55-year-old, Chinese-born leader of a Uighur family so secretive that, until now, not a single photograph of its key members has appeared in the public domain.

Contracts provided by Saimaiti, as well as interviews with officials, traders, and businessmen, corroborate his claim that the source of the family’s millions was an underground system they operated that allowed them to move undeclared and falsely labeled goods from China into Kyrgyzstan, and then to bring them to market in bazaars across Central Asia and Russia.

By OCCRP, RFE/RL, and Kloop, 21 November 2019

Read more at OCCRP

Photo: Connie [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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