Uzbekistan Confirms Karimova Probes in PR-Boosting Exercise

Uzbekistan did more than confirm what all watchers of the region already suspected in announcing news of prosecutions against the late president’s eldest daughter — it also made a fresh bid toward achieving a sliver of international respectability.

The General Prosecutor’s Office announced on July 28 that a slew of criminal probes were initiated against Gulnara Karimova as long ago as October 2013, when her father was still alive. Tashkent regional court sentenced her, in August 2015, to five years of “limited freedom,” the prosecutor’s statement said. From all that is known of Karimova’s fate, limited freedom appears to indicate house arrest.

Karimova’s alleged offenses include fraud, concealment of foreign currencies, violation of customs regulations and money-laundering. All told, her criminal conspiracy, which are said to have lasted from 2001 through to 2013, has cost the Uzbek state some $2 billion in economic damages, prosecutors said.

Some of the companies named in the lengthy prosecutorial statement are familiar to those that watched Karimova’s career closely: mobile phone company Uzdunrobita (later rebranded as MTS by its Russian parent company), the Coca-Cola Ichimligi Uzbekistan bottling concern, and then her own companies: Terra Group, Prime Media and Gamma Promotion.

That latter trio of companies was accused specifically of failing to pay taxes.

Gamma Promotion was a media and communications company run by Karimova’s long-time partner Rustam Madumarov, who was reportedly sentenced to seven years in jail in early 2014. The company was awarded the license to certain communications transmission frequencies in 2006, but lost those rights in February 2010.  Terra Group, which also a near-monopolist on the advertising market, appears to have won rights to communications frequencies around 2008.

That window of time represents the peak of the various international telecoms pay-to-play scandals that culminated in Karimova’s downfall.

The prosecutors’ statement said yet more offenses are being pursued, raising the possibility that Karimova’s five-year limited freedom sentence could be extended before she is able to appeal for some form of parole.

Prosecutors said they have also tracked down assets worth around $1.5 billion belonging to Karimova in 12 countries. Large hoards of cash in Switzerland and several other countries, homes in the United Kingdom, apartments and a chateau in France, penthouses and villas in Russia, a penthouse in Dubai, gold in Hong Kong, shares in Ireland, a plane in Malta — on and on it goes.

This is where a telling phrase comes in.

“At the current time, investigative work in ongoing to track down other assets belonging to the criminal group and ensuring their return to Uzbekistan,” the statement said.

That the authorities have taken this long to reveal the scope of criminal investigations and prosecutions against Karimova underline the fact that Tashkent remains as uninterested as ever in transparency.

Instead, it is more likely that Uzbekistan is launching another bid to be seen to be taking concrete action against Karimova as a way to persuade the United States to reverse a 2015 request to several European nation to freeze around $1 billion paid to businesses linked to Karimova by international telecommunications company seeking to guarantee operating rights in Uzbekistan. That amount has been reported by the Wall Street Journal to include 800 million Swiss francs ($793 million) seized in Switzerland — an amount also indicated the Uzbek prosecutors’ statement.

Swiss prosecutors traveled to Tashkent in December to meet with Karimova at her home, according to a WSJ report in January. The newspaper cited a Swiss court-appointed lawyer for Karimova, Grégoire Mangeat, as saying prosecutors were allowed to meet with her on December 9-10 and that they subjected her to 23 hours of questioning.

“She is confined to a small annex at her former house in the center of Tashkent. She’s banned from communicating with the outside world, be it her children or her own lawyers,” Mangeat told the WSJ at the time.

It is not known if there have been any follow-up interviews.

Karimova’s confinement in Tashkent is at the heart of the problem, however. The US Justice Department, among others, may well want more than verbal assurances from Uzbekistan that criminal investigations are underway and that Karimova is getting her just desserts if there is to be any movement on asset freezes being lifted.

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