Credit: James O’Brien

Raimbek Matraimov, a shadowy Kyrgyz political operator, has long denied his ties to Khabibula Abdukadyr, the secretive tycoon who made millions in alleged smuggling with his help. In 2021, his son married Khabibula’s daughter.

«Friends, let’s loudly and emotionally support our bride, our Alanur!» the master of ceremonies says, as a young woman in a white dress appears on a raised platform.

Accompanied by music and a light show that spells out her name, she walks into the center of the hall flanked by two male relatives.

Later, wearing a traditional peaked hat, she approaches a young man in a dark suit. As guests crowd around, recording the scene on their phones, the couple walks onto the stage, where the groom’s mother performs a traditional ceremony: draping the bride in a customary Kyrgyz camisole, or kemsel.

These scenes, which were posted on Instagram by an attendee in June 2021, depict what appears to be an unremarkable, if high-end, Kyrgyz wedding.

But Alanur and her groom, Bakai, are no ordinary couple.

The father of the bride is Khabibula Abdukadyr, a secretive tycoon accused of colluding with corrupt Kyrgyz customs officials to build a trade monopoly over the vast flow of Chinese goods into Central Asia.

The groom’s father is Raimbek Matraimov, a shadowy political operator who was once the deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s customs service. Matraimov was Abdukadyr’s ally and top government patron before being exposed, pleading guilty to corruption, and landing on a U.S. sanctions list.

Khabibula Abdukadur’s daughter Alanur being draped in a traditional Kyrgyz garment by Uulkan Turgunova, the mother of her new husband, as a welcome into the family. Credit: Instagram

Despite numerous journalistic investigations into the two men’s mutually beneficial relationship, Matraimov has denied having any ties to the Abdukadyr family.

The newly-obtained footage shows that these ties have become not only economic, but familial. Aside from the young couple, video clips of the ceremony posted on social media show that the attendees included Khabibula Abdukadyr himself, Raimbek Matraimov’s wife Uulkan Turgunova, and a man who appears to be Raimbek’s brother, member of parliament Iskender Matraimov. Joint photos of these prominent members of the Abdukadyr and Matraimov families have never before been published.

Alanur filmed at the wedding with her groom Bakai and some of the couple’s relatives. Credit: Instagram

The event was lavish and underscored its hosts’ widespread influence, with some of Central Asia’s best-known singers and musical groups performing for the gathered guests. Even Kyrgyzstan’s then ambassador to Uzbekistan, Ibragim Junusov, was in attendance, singing along with the well-known Soviet-era Uzbek band Yalla.

Rumors of the upcoming nuptials first surfaced in the Kyrgyz press in February 2021, several months before the ceremony. Some sketchy details about a second ceremony emerged in local media at the end of the year, leading Matraimov’s brother Iskender to confirm his nephew’s wedding while refusing to name his bride, saying only that she was from an “ordinary family.”

Bakai Matraimov and Alanur Khabibula could not be reached for comment. Raimbek Matraimov and Khabibula Abdukadyr did not respond to requests for comment.

Khabibula Abdukadyr’s alliance with Matraimov was first exposed by reporters from OCCRP, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service Azattyk, and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop in 2019 in the award-winning “Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia” investigative series.

The investigation revealed that, in exchange for alleged kickbacks, Matraimov used his position as a senior customs official to help Abdukadyr gain a lucrative monopoly over a key trade route from China into Central Asia. The reporting was based on records provided to reporters by a man who said Abdukadyr had hired him to launder hundreds of millions of dollars in resulting profits into Western bank accounts.

Reporters also found business ties between the two families: Matraimov’s wife Uulkan Turgunova bought a plot of land in Dubai on which she built a residential complex together with one of Khabibula Abdukadyr’s brothers, Maimaitili Hadeer. This complex, called the Olive Residence, was completed in 2021. As of May 2023, it is owned by a business partner of the Abdukadyr family.

This five-story apartment building in Dubai represents a commercial link between the Abdukadyr and Matraimov families. Credit: OCCRP

The Abdukadyr family never provided any substantive response to the investigation. Matraimov, who had since left the customs service, denied any wrongdoing and sued reporters for libel. (The lawsuit was later withdrawn.)

Another investigation published the following year traced his family’s lavish lifestyle, continued dominance of Kyrgyz customs facilities, and political influence.

In Kyrgyzstan, the reporting had a visible impact, triggering several demonstrations. And after a political party backed by the Matraimov family won a close second place in the next parliamentary election in October 2020, the results provoked mass protests that led to nullification of the results and a new government.

Several months later, Matraimov pleaded guilty to corruption and to operating a “scheme … to receive remuneration for speeding up the customs clearance” of trucks traveling from China to Central Asia. The former customs official wasn’t imprisoned, but compensated the government $24 million of “damage … to the budget” and was fined $3,000.

While the verdict does not name Abdukadyr as a beneficiary of this scheme, it does cite details — such as a specific customs post and a time-frame — that corroborates the specifics of the earlier reporting about his role.

The business relationship between the Matraimovs and the Abdukadir has continued to this day.

Directly opposite the Olive Residence in Dubai, Turgunova acquired another plot of land for $3 million on which Khabibula Abdukadyr and his brother Alimbek Palvan are currently developing a 29-story residential tower.

The project was among many revealed this April in the latest major investigation into the Abdukadyr family. The project, The Shadow Investor, exposes the vast assets and investments Abdukadyr and his family have amassed across Central Asia in the years since they were first exposed.

By Eldiyar Arykbaev, Kelly Bloss