Hot on the news that Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman president Islam Karimov, is a formal suspect in a Swiss money-laundering investigation, embattled Nordic telecommunications giant TeliaSonera has become the target of a related corruption probe in the United States.
“TeliaSonera has been informed that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has an ongoing investigation regarding TeliaSonera’s transactions in Uzbekistan,” the company said in a March 17 statement. “The DOJ has sent a request for documents to TeliaSonera. In addition, TeliaSonera has received a request from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to submit documents and information related to Uzbekistan.”
The company made the announcement five days after revealing that two of its daughter companies, TeliaSonera UTA Holding B.V. and TeliaSonera Uzbek Telecom Holding B.V (the holders of TeliaSonera’s operations in Uzbekistan, where it operates the Ucell brand), are under investigation in The Netherlands in a bribery and money-laundering case.
“Dutch authorities have requested collateral for any financial claims which may be decided against TeliaSonera UTA Holding BV,” TeliaSonera said on March 17, adding that the request for collateral stands at 10-20 million euros.
“The common denominator for our contacts with the authorities is that we are asked for information about TeliaSonera’s investments in Uzbekistan and documents related to these,” the statement quoted Peter Borsos, Head of Group Communications, as saying. “TeliaSonera cooperates fully with all the authorities, as we are doing with the Swedish prosecutor, in order to gain full clarity on these issues.”
Another firm active on Uzbekistan’s telecoms market, Russia’s VimpelCom (operator of the Beeline brand) is also under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and Dutch authorities over its Uzbekistan operations, it said on March 12.
TeliaSonera is under investigation in Sweden over payments of $330 million it made to a small offshore company called Takilant Limited, run by Karimova associate Gayane Avakyan, to purchase 3G licenses in Uzbekistan when it entered the market in 2007. The Nordic firm acknowledges making the payments but denies any wrongdoing in the affair, which has sparked the resignation of its CEO and the dismissal of four senior executives.
On March 12 Switzerland's Office of the Attorney General (OAG) announced that it is investigating Karimova on suspicion of money laundering. A sum of over 800m Swiss francs ($911m) has been frozen in the case, and investigators are believed to be working on the theory that the funds include some of the millions paid by TeliaSonera for 3G licenses in Uzbekistan.
Karimova is under heavy pressure in Uzbekistan, where her associates, including Avakyan, were summoned for questioning by prosecutors last month as part of a criminal investigation into tax evasion and concealing foreign currency.
Karimova has been engaged in a bitter feud since last fall with her sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, and Rustam Inoyatov, the head of Uzbekistan’s SNB domestic intelligence service. She has used Twitter to fight her corner, but her Twitter account has been silent for over three weeks, while another account tweeting in her support, called Free Gulnara (SOS), has said that she is being held under house arrest.
“Today, [it is] a month since Gulnara and her 15 year old daughter, a US citizen[,] are kept under house arrest incommunicado by the SNB & [Karimova’s mother] Tatyana Karimova,” the account tweeted on March 17, after a two-week silence.
“Their [Karimova’s enemies] fear of exposure, for their multi-billion financial dealings, as well as manipulation of Islam Karimov, drives them to mad lengths,” it said in another tweet.