Uzbekistan's Gulnara Karimova linked to telecoms scandal
- 27 November 2012
- From the section Asia
Investigators in Switzerland and Sweden are probing alleged links between a leading European telecommunications company and a high-level multi-million dollar fraud and corruption scandal in Uzbekistan.
The allegations stretch all the way to businesswoman, pop diva and one-time UN ambassador Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
She has so far not commented on the claims and the BBC's efforts for her to do so have remained unanswered.
Swedish-based TeliaSonera, which is partly state-owned, has been at the centre of a huge political storm since Swedish TV broadcast a report accusing it of making a $300m payment to an intermediary company for the rights to operate a 3G mobile phone service in the Central Asian republic.
Those payments seem to have disappeared.
TeliaSonera strongly denies any wrongdoing, but the case, which is now the subject of a major Swedish prosecutor's investigation, has been discussed in parliament and continues to make headlines in Sweden.
The case against TeliaSonera centres on a small company called Takilant, which is registered in Gibraltar and owned by an Uzbek national called Gayane Avakyan.
Little is known about Ms Avakyan - and how at the age of 29 she has ended up running a company negotiating mobile phone licences on behalf of the Uzbek government.
However, in a photograph taken of her recently at a Paris Fashion show, she is sitting next to Ms Karimova.
It is this connection which has given the TeliaSonera allegations an explosive extra edge.
Gulnara Karimova is believed to have major commercial interests in Uzbekistan - including in the telecoms sector.
But until now there has been little if any evidence linking her directly to any specific businesses or corroborating any of the allegations of fraud frequently levelled against her.
The TeliaSonera story might just change that.
The company first hit the headlines in April when it acknowledged that it had given security services in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Belarus access to its computer systems - in effect enabling them to spy on mobile phone users. TeliaSonera runs telecom services in all three countries.
Subsequent investigations by Swedish public television revealed that the $300m which TeliaSonera said it had paid to intermediary company Takilant for a 3G licence in Uzbekistan never appeared in the company's books.
Swedish journalists travelled to Gibraltar, where Takilant is registered to see if they could find out more. Although they were able to obtain copies of the company's annual accounts, they discovered no offices or staff.
Meanwhile, the BBC's Uzbek service in London found the same story when they went to the registered address of a Takilant affiliate company in the UK.
As a result of the Swedish TV report, state prosecutors in Stockholm opened an investigation and ordered that Takilant's Swedish account with Nordea Bank - containing $30m - should be frozen.
At the same time as the Swedish investigation, Takilant had also caught the attention of the Money Laundering Reporting Office in Switzerland.
The development came after bank officials at the exclusive Lombard Odier Bank in Geneva became concerned in June when their client, Uzbek telecoms tycoon Bekzod Ahmedov, appeared on the Interpol wanted list, accused of massive fraud in Uzbekistan.
Mr Ahmedov used to be general director of a mobile phone company called Uzdunrobita. According to documents obtained by the Financial Times newspaper in 2003, this company was owned by Gulnara Karimova.
In a further twist to this complex sequence of events, two Uzbek men were arrested in Geneva in July after allegedly trying to get access to the Takilant accounts using documents which, according to banking sources, had been forged abroad.
Immediately afterwards Swiss prosecutors launched a major investigation into money-laundering and froze a series of Takilant accounts containing hundreds of millions of US dollars.
One of the men was Alisher Ergashev - a named holder of the Takilant account frozen in Sweden.
Interestingly, Mr Ergashev's name and signature also appear on recently-revealed company documents in France as the director of two property firms.
The main shareholder of the companies is Gulnara Karimova, whose signature appears on the documents.
Alisher Ergashev and his co-detainee are currently on bail while the investigation into Takilant continues.
Swiss prosecutors office told the BBC that they are investigating two other Uzbeks in relation to the case.
They have not been named, but a Swiss investigative journalist with knowledge of the story told the BBC that, according to his sources, one of them was Takilant owner Gayane Avakyan. The other is believed to be Mr Ahmedov, the former telecoms tycoon.
A former Swiss public prosecutor, Bernard Bertossa, told the BBC he did not expect the Uzbek authorities would co-operate.
"It is difficult when such an investigation concerns... people close to members of the government… in countries like Uzbekistan," he said. "The judiciary [there] is not independent."
Meanwhile, in Sweden the investigation into Takilant and TeliaSonera continues.
The company's chief executive, Lars Nyberg has offered to resign if there is any evidence of corruption. He has instigated an independent inquiry into TeliaSonera's activities in Uzbekistan which will report its findings by the end of the year.
And in Uzbekistan itself Ms Karimova's mind appears to have been far away from corruption rows. She has been busy promoting her new pop single and video as well as her fashion brand.