In Uzbekistan, where public protest is strictly controlled, reports have emerged of picketers targeting the Swiss Embassy after the arrest of Uzbek citizens in Switzerland on suspicion of money-laundering.Regional news site Centrasia.ru reported that the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent was picketed by a group of 10-11 people carrying placards saying “Shame on Switzerland!” on August 4. The report said the mini-demo was a protest against the detention in Geneva of two Uzbek staff members of Coca-Cola Uzbekistan, named as Aliyer Irgashev and Shahruh Sabirov (the latter was named in other sources as Farruh Saberov).Citing “sources,” Centrasia.ru suggested the protest had been organized by a foundation run by Gulnara Karimova, eldest daughter of President Islam Karimov -- the Forum of Culture and Art of Uzbekistan (Fund Forum for short). Neither the foundation nor Coca-Cola Uzbekistan immediately responded to emails requesting comment late on August 8. The Swiss Foreign Ministry confirmed to the independent Uznews.net website that it had taken a letter from a small group of people at the embassy on August 6. It said embassy staff had not noticed a picket on August 4 but had noticed an unusually high police presence. Local media reports are connecting Gulnara Karimova (who sings professionally under the stage name Googoosha) to the arrests since she was once married to former Coca-Cola Uzbekistan executive Mansur Maqsudi. After their acrimonious divorce “Karimova assumed control of Coca-Cola's Uzbek venture […] and he and his business partners were expelled from Uzbekistan,” Uznews.net said. Reports on the picket allege that money-laundering allegations involving Uzbek businesses and Swiss banks are at the root of it. Uzmetronom.com, a semi-official site, cited “reliable sources” as saying two Uzbeks had been arrested in Swiss bank Lombard Odier, linking the detentions to money-laundering investigations. The allegations Karimova is possibly connected to money-laundering come in the wake of another curious incident that may – or may not – be linked to the Karimov family and their business interests. On July 17, a mysterious press release was distributed by PR Newswire, in which a purported law firm, Huntsman Lewis, said it was pulling out of Uzbekistan amid “perceived threats to Western interests in Tashkent.” “We are proud of the work we have done in Uzbekistan, in particular representing the plaintiffs in fraud charges brought against Akbar Abdullaev,” the statement quoted Paul Lewis, described as a partner heading the firm's Uzbek team. “However, in the wake of that case, we have received several serious threats to our persons, and those of our staff.” The PR Newswire statement gave no more details, but Uznews.net had reported just a week earlier that a certain Akbar Abdullaev, portrayed as an entrepreneur and nephew of President Karimov, was on the run following the arrests of business associates in the Ferghana Valley.In a peculiar twist, however, Huntsman Lewis, the supposedly affronted law firm, appears to have a secretive streak. An Internet search did not turn up a website for the firm, or contact details, and no reports of its activities in Uzbekistan could be found. PR Newswire told EurasiaNet.org by telephone that it was unable to release contact details.As EurasiaNet.org reported last week, Uzbekistan’s economy can resemble something of a smoke-and-mirrors world, and the latest reports involving the Karimov family certainly aren’t shedding any light on it.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.