Uzbekistan: Pressure Mounts in Googoosha-Linked Graft Probes
As Swiss and Swedish investigators probe allegations of corruption and money-laundering involving Uzbekistan, one name is increasingly appearing linked to the cases: Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of strongman President Islam Karimov.Leaked documents (whose authenticity is not confirmed) relating to the Swiss money-laundering inquiry suggest that investigators have identified the suspect at the heart of the probe as an associate of Karimova’s and designated the case politically sensitive.A French-language letter (carried by regional news site Centrasia.ru) purportedly sent by anti-laundering investigators to the Swiss Office of the Attorney General suggests the Uzbek government -- perhaps inadvertently -- sparked the money-laundering probe that is now coming uncomfortably close to Karimova. The letter states that the probe was launched after investigators received notification from Geneva-based bank Lombard Odier (acting under its legal obligations) that one of its clients was on the Interpol wanted list for alleged fraud. That client was Bekhzod Akhmedov, former director of the Uzbekistan subsidiary of Russian cellphone company MTS. Tashkent declared him wanted after he fled the country amid a row between the firm and the government that culminated with Tashkent seizing MTS’s assets this summer.That Interpol notice (issued on behalf of Tashkent) sparked the money-laundering probe -- and the leaked document suggests that Swiss investigators believe Akhmedov to be “close to the family of the Uzbek president, through his [Karimov’s] daughter Gulnara Karimova.” Another document (published in incomplete form) states that it is unclear who is the ultimate beneficiary of financial assets involved in the case, which “could belong, directly or indirectly, to the entourage/family of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.” The document speaks of “likely repercussions and international political stakes.”Contacted by EurasiaNet.org, the Swiss Office of the Attorney General declined to be drawn on the authenticity of the documents or the identity of the four Uzbek nationals at the center of the case. A spokesperson re-confirmed that two Uzbek nationals (named in regional media sources as Alisher Ergashev and Shohruh Sabirov) are under arrest, and that “several hundred million francs” in various Swiss banks have been frozen.” “No further information is being provided at present in order not to prejudice the ongoing investigations,” the spokesperson said by e-mail. A documentary aired by Swedish broadcaster SVT last month implicated another Karimova associate in the case, describing businesswoman Gayane Avakyan as “the focus of a major money laundering investigation recently launched by Swiss authorities.” SVT's allegations that Swedish-Finnish telecoms firm TeliaSonera (which owns the Ucell mobile phone company in Uzbekistan) made suspicious payments to “a small, one-woman company in a tax haven” -- Takilant Limited, run out of Gibraltar by Avakyan -- has sparked a Swedish police investigation. TeliaSonera is cooperating but has denied any wrongdoing. On October 1, $30 million belonging to Takilant in a Swedish bank was frozen, and prosecutors are seeking to freeze a further $235 million in assets belonging to Takilant.The Swedish corruption investigation is linked to Karimova through Avakyan, described by SVT as “very close to the Uzbek dictator’s daughter,” while a recent report by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service says that Avakyan “manages Gulnara’s financial affairs.” An online search reveals long-standing links between Karimova and Avakyan: In 2006 Avakyan coordinated an exhibition at a St Petersburg museum featuring fashion designs by Karimova (who is also a pop diva under the stage name Googoosha and a diplomat), and Avakyan was named six years ago as director at House of Style, a Karimova fashion project. Avakyan could not be reached for comment. Requests for comment from Karimova emailed to the Uzbek mission to the United Nations in Geneva, where she is ambassador, and Fund Forum, a charitable organization she runs in Tashkent, were not answered.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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