Raimbek Matraimov’s Dubious Real Estate Shopping Spree

At last, Raimbek Matraimov was going to be giving instead of taking.

The former Kyrgyz customs official, nicknamed Raim-Million for his immense wealth, agreed in October to repay 2 billion soms (US$24 million) to compensate his government for years of corruption.

His admission of guilt and repayment of a substantial sum was seen by some as a step forward in a country where corruption had long run rampant.

However, his much-publicized compensation was not what it seemed, OCCRP and Kloop have discovered. Nearly a third of it was made in the form of 10 properties he handed over to the state. He had acquired them just days before offering them as repayment, for reasons that remain unclear.

A series of investigations by OCCRP, RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk, and Kloop have revealed how Matraimov and his family profited from a vast network of patronage and corruption both in and out of government.

The most valuable, an unused shopping mall in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, was a gift from his brother.

The remaining properties, consisting mostly of run-down apartments, are a mystery: He bought them all just days before handing them over, raising the question of why he could not have paid the state directly. An even bigger question is how Matraimov could have made the purchases in the first place, since his bank accounts were frozen by the court.

Matraimov and his family don’t appear to have relinquished any of the luxury properties they acquired over the years. The amount he amassed during his time in the customs service is unknown, but is widely assumed to be vast: Previous investigations revealed that he enabled and profited from customs fraud that saw over $700 million spirited out of Kyrgyzstan.

Matraimov’s compensation arrangement, reached with prosecutors behind closed doors, sets a dangerous precedent, according to Adylbek Sharshenbaev, a board member of the Kyrgyz chapter of Transparency International.

“If a corrupt person can assume that he can avoid punishment by paying a fine or through material liability [e.g. handing over property], then he can continue his activities,” Sharshenbaev said. “So in my opinion it’s categorically wrong to allow such things, that you can reach an agreement in a corruption case … Such a crime cannot be left unpunished.”

It’s unclear what will happen to Matraimov next. On February 18, he was unexpectedly detained again on suspicion of money laundering, and jailed for two months. But in Kyrgyzstan there is little faith that he will face real accountability, with one legislator even joking that his jail cell would probably be upgraded to “a cool hotel.”

Matraimov’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

Kyrgyzstan’s recent turmoil began in early October 2020, when citizens poured into the streets to protest a parliamentary election marred by vote-buying and other abuses. Much of the public anger was aimed at Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, a political party backed by the Matraimov family, which had won a close second place.

In the confusing days that followed, a nationalist politician named Sadyr Japarov was sprung out of prison by a mob of supporters and declared acting prime minister. Amid an uprising fueled by fury at Matraimov, he made a bold pledge to go after the famously corrupt ex-official.
“Raim-Million will go to prison,” he told a group of cheering supporters.

On October 16, as he became acting president, Japarov again repeated his promise to go after Matraimov, but this time he made no mention of prison. “Matraimov and other corruptioneers will be punished before our country with all the strictness of the law,” he said.

Four days later, Matraimov was indeed in handcuffs — only to be released that very same evening after striking a deal with investigators.

Japarov explained that a “political” decision had been reached that would allow Matraimov to avoid jail. In exchange, he agreed to admit his guilt and compensate the government for his corruption. Kyrgyzstan’s security service, the GKNB, announced that he would pay back 2 billion soms ($24 million).

Azim Azimov, a Kyrgyz political commentator, said he had mixed feelings about the arrangement.

“I’m very impressed that Matraimov paid 2 billion soms,” he said. “For the first time, he was held accountable,” Azimov said.

On the other hand, the deal felt to him like a pre-arranged sham. “Raimbek Matraimov and his organization have penetrated all the structures of power, and any punitive measures against him are quite problematic and painful [for them],” he said. “So, in coordination with each other, they made a decision that could come as close as possible to what the public expected.”

Although his fall from grace has been the subject of extensive public debate in Kyrgyzstan, what hasn’t been widely reported is that Matraimov didn’t simply pay the full sum into the treasury.

Instead, he transferred 1.4 billion soms ($17 million) in cash and paid the remaining 600 million soms ($7 million) by giving nine apartments and a shopping center to the government, GKNB head Kamchybek Tashiev announced at a December 24 press conference.

While the GKNB provided no further information, some additional details, including the addresses of the properties Matraimov gave up, were revealed during his fast-tracked trial earlier this month.

They revealed a number of irregularities.

In the first place, it’s unclear how 2 billion soms was determined to be the appropriate compensation for years of corruption. The prosecutor’s explanation involved multiplying the 16,761 trucks that had passed through a certain checkpoint during Matraimov’s time in the customs service by the amount of money he supposedly earned from each truck in bribes: $860. But this calculation yields a sum of just 1.2 billion soms ($14 million) at current exchange rates. It is unclear why other checkpoints were not mentioned and whether the amount of $860 was decided simply on Matraimov’s say-so.

Secondly, it’s unclear how the properties he gave to the government were valued at $7 million, and authorities provided no explanation. According to a representative of the State Property Management Fund who spoke in an unofficial capacity, the valuation was done by private firms and verified by authorities.

But reporters’ calculations of the properties’ total value yielded a different result. Using previous sales prices when they were known, and a range of estimates from independent realtors when they were not, the 10 properties could be worth between $5.6 and $6.7 million in total.

Finally, during the trial, the prosecutor noted that Matraimov had used his illicit profits to buy real estate — including a luxury penthouse apartment in Bishkek and a lakeside cottage. But these properties were not among those he ceded to the government.

An earlier investigation, presented in this interactive map, lists the properties known to belong to the Matraimov family. As they do not match Matraimov’s known income as a government servant, they are evidence of his unexplained wealth.

Instead, he gave up nine apartments, some in decrepit Soviet-era buildings, and a shuttered Bishkek shopping mall. What’s more, the apartments had never before appeared among his or his family’s known holdings, and for good reason — he had acquired them in late January, just a week before handing them to the state.

When the GKNB was telling the public in December that Matraimov had already compensated Kyrgyzstan’s taxpayers by handing over the properties, he didn’t even own them.

Reporters sent the GKNB a detailed set of questions about these apparent irregularities, and received only a referral back to the court that handled Matraimov’s case. The agency did not respond to further questions.

To learn more, reporters fanned out across Bishkek to investigate the apartments and their former owners.

None showed signs of occupancy. Neighbors who could be reached all said no one had lived in the properties for several months. In some cases, reporters found utility bills on the apartment doors. In fact, as they visited one apartment in western Bishkek, reporters encountered the head of the neighborhood association angrily knocking on the door. “I want to know [who lives here] too,” she said. “He doesn’t pay his bills.”

The state of the interior of the apartments could not be determined; it is not known how much money the state would have to spend to sell them or put them to another use. The State Property Management Fund did not respond to requests for comment about its plans for the properties.

Reporters were able to reach only one of the properties’ previous owners, a man named Bayastan Kelishbekov. He had sold two apartments to Matraimov on January 25.

Kelishbekov said he had dealt with an intermediary and only later discovered that the real buyer had been Matraimov after being summoned to a meeting with the GKNB. He said he had been asked not to reveal the specifics of their conversation.

Kelishbekov described the sale as fully legitimate. “We’re satisfied,” he said. “We received the sum, the initial payment, and the rest of the installments according to the contract.” He did not disclose the amount Matraimov had paid, citing confidentiality.

In only one case did an apartment’s previous owner have any visible connection to Matraimov: The name listed in one of the property records is that of his nephew, Nurseit Sydykov.

Alleged Mobster Amasses Albanian Property

From his apartment overlooking the picturesque Narta lagoon in Albania’s south, 72-year-old Jorgaq Subashi can glimpse the land he was awarded in 1993 as part of the government’s attempt to return property seized under communist rule.

But he is not allowed to live on it.

Almost three decades after winning the land back, Subashi and 34 fellow villagers have yet to receive their property deeds. They remain embroiled in seemingly interminable bureaucracy, despite a court confirming in 2012 that their properties had been unlawfully transferred to a powerful local clan linked to the theft of swathes of the country’s southern coastline around the city of Vlora.

“We know that the lands were taken from us by the collectivization of agriculture during the communist regime,” said Subashi. “After the ’90s, the state gave them back to us, but we still cannot register them.”

The villagers’ plight is common in the Balkan nation, one of the poorest countries in Europe, where attempts at land reform have been hampered by mismanagement and corruption. In some cases, the process has been hijacked by alleged gangsters like Artur Shehu, who, along with some of his family members, is accused of stealing nearly 500 hectares of prime real estate near Vlora.

An underworld figure accused of having ties to organized crime in Albania, and a powerful branch of the Italian mafia, Shehu fled his homeland in 1999 after a deadly gunfight in his bar in Vlora.

He sought asylum in the U.S., and received it in 2001. In 2019 he got a green card, paving the way for him to become a citizen. Despite his hasty exit from Albania, he has continued to direct operations there from the safety of a mansion on the Florida coast.

Shehu has not officially been accused of a crime, but his associate Pellumb Petritaj, who oversees many of his properties, has been found guilty of using forgery to obtain land on behalf of the Shehu family.

Shehu’s activities are, however, well known locally. A judicial commission described him in 2018 as “a key player” in land theft around Vlora. When asked why no action had been taken against Shehu despite evidence from multiple cases and jurisdictions, the prosecutors’ office in Vlora declined to comment.

Shehu refused to reply to questions about the matter. He instead approached OCCRP through an intermediary, who offered a reporter “whatever you want” in exchange for dropping the story.

But after years of maintaining a low profile in his home country and working through intermediaries, Shehu’s name has recently appeared on documents showing new business interests in the Albanian Riviera, a long stretch of turquoise-edged coastline along the Adriatic Sea.

In 2019 he co-founded a hotel development firm called Portonova, which shares a name with a beach on the outskirts of Vlora. In April last year, he opened another firm to develop tourism sites, Adhenis. It appears that Shehu is presenting a new public image — one that is a far cry from his alleged criminal background in a city once teeming with gangsters.

Life in Vlora in the late 1990s was pure mayhem. Hadër Cako, who headed an investigative unit in the local police force during that period, recalls that for several years, the city was entirely in the grip of local gangs.

The Albanian economy collapsed after several nationwide pyramid schemes fell apart in 1996 and 1997, and the country descended into civil conflict, prompting a United Nations military intervention led by Italy.

“The police station was without windows or doors, without cells,” Cako told OCCRP. “The city was totally in the control of the local criminal gangs. The city was a ring of brutal killings, rape, theft.”

Shehu, fresh from a stint in Albania’s special forces, was well known among police in Vlora at the time for criminal activity, according to a former Vlora police chief who asked not to be named for safety reasons.

“He had a hotel, and later on he built a casino,” said the former official.

Dritan Zagani, who headed the anti-narcotics unit in the city in the late 1990s, said he had cooperated with an Italian anti-drug unit probing a crime ring that Shehu was allegedly involved with.

“There was an open investigation into an Italian-Albanian organized crime group for the offenses of trafficking in human beings and narcotics,” said Zagani.

Cataldo Motta, a former prosecutor in the southern Italian city of Lecce, which lies just 112 km west across the Adriatic Sea from Vlora, also remembered the case involving Shehu: “It is a well-known name. He was in our files suspected of drug trafficking.”

Shehu provided OCCRP with a letter dated June 2016 from the prosecutor’s office in Lecce saying he had not been convicted in that jurisdiction, but refused to answer questions on the matter, or to comment for this story.

Shehu’s time in Vlora ended after the 1999 gunfight in his bar, according to Zagani. He said gang members killed two people in the attack, including Shehu’s uncle, Luan Bedini.

“Luan died in Artur’s arms and he vowed to avenge the murder of his uncle,” said Zagani.

He said police wanted to question Shehu about the shooting and his alleged involvement with a local crime syndicate, but he fled the country.

According to U.S. court documents, Shehu has been a resident of that country since at least 2001, when he was granted asylum. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes asylum claims, said it was unable to disclose any information on the case.

In 2005, he moved to Miami, where he built a colonial-style villa overlooking a golf course, complete with columns and an ornate crest. The property has been valued at up to $3 million. Florida property records show that, in addition to the four-bedroom villa, Shehu previously owned a series of condos in and around Miami.

Shehu’s house sits in an upscale neighborhood just minutes away from the Miami Beach oceanfront, with a manicured lawn flanked by trees. Two Mercedes-Benz cars were parked in the driveway when a reporter from the Miami Herald visited the property.

In addition to placing a letter with questions in Shehu’s mailbox, the Herald also sent questions via Fedex, which someone at the address signed for. Shortly afterwards, Shehu contacted a reporter in Albania through an intermediary, who offered “whatever you want” in exchange for dropping the story.

Although Shehu has spent nearly two decades living in Miami as a refugee, Italian anti-mafia investigators believe that he has continued to conduct business in Albania –– sometimes allegedly on behalf of Italian gangsters.

Guglielmo Cataldi, another prosecutor in Lecce, said Shehu was investigated in 2012 for his role in allegedly investing money in Albania for Albino Prudentino, a senior member of the Italian mafia organization Sacra Corona Unita.

An Italian court document obtained by OCCRP shows that, from 2009, Prudentino rented part of a luxury building owned by Shehu in Vlora’s Uji Ftohtë neighborhood. The Italian mob boss ran a restaurant and gelateria on the ground floor and a casino upstairs.

Prudentino was found guilty in 2013 of laundering mafia money through these businesses, and sentenced to three years in prison. Italian prosecutors alleged that Shehu made 1 million euros helping him do it, although they noted that they did not have enough proof to charge him.

Shehu was not charged in Italy, but Cataldi said the case against him was passed on to Albanian investigators. “We sent the data we had to Albania, showing them what the investments were, but I don’t know how this investigation went.”

Albania’s state prosecution, police, and the Vlora prosecution office all declined to comment on the case.

Beginning in 2006, from his opulent perch in Miami, Shehu started amassing a vast portfolio of properties around Vlora — through means that local residents say were illegal.

Although he and his family benefited from the alleged fraud, Shehu has never been directly charged over the land cases. However, a close associate of his, Pëllumb Petritaj, was convicted in 2018 of forging land documents to usurp 187 hectares of land.

In other court cases involving a total of nearly 300 additional hectares near Vlora, Shehu and his family members are accused of grabbing property through similar forgeries. This includes the land on the shores of the Narta Lagoon that Subashi and his fellow villagers say were stolen from them.

In these ongoing cases, Petritaj would allegedly forge documents with the help of local officials to get land into the hands of Artur and his father, Ramis. Sometimes a third party would receive the land, then transfer it to the Shehus.

Despite the lack of legal action against Shehu, at least some in the judiciary are aware of his reputation for expropriating land around Vlora.

A disciplinary case in 2018 saw Artur Malaj, a judge in Tirana who had previously served as the head of the Court of Vlora, sacked for a host of ethical failures, including an allegation related to Shehu. Among the findings of the investigation into the judge was that at least one of his family members had bought land from Shehu, which Malaj failed to report.

“A. Sh is suspected of being a key player in the process of property alienation in Vlora,” the report reads, referring to Shehu.

The judge told OCCRP that just one family member had bought land from Shehu. He said he had no knowledge of this until the investigation uncovered it, and insisted that he has had no contact with Shehu.

“I have been a judge in the city of Vlora for around 10 years. In not a single case have I had any property issues or other issues which were related … to Artur Shehu or his family,” Malaj said.

Even those with substantial resources at their disposal have been forced to cut deals with Shehu. They include a charitable foundation formed in 2014 with the mission of reclaiming the ancestral estate of the Eftimiadis, a well-to-do family that emigrated from Vlora to Italy in the early 20th century.