A top Norwegian business executive has been arrested in Oslo on corruption charges relating to a multimillion-dollar bribery case involving the ruling Karimov family of Uzbekistan.
The detention ramps up the pressure from international investigations into alleged bribery by multinationals of Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, to gain a foothold in the country’s lucrative telecoms market.
Jo Lunder, former chief executive of embattled Russian-owned telecoms company VimpelCom, was arrested as he flew into Oslo airport late November 4, a public prosecutor told Norwegian media the following day.
“He has been charged in connection to the VimpelCom case. It is a corruption charge,” Marianne Djupesland said in remarks quoted by Stockholm-based newspaper The Local, declining to reveal further details.
Lunder’s lawyer Cato Schiotz says the accused believes he is innocent, the newspaper reported.
The arrest comes three months after the U.S. Department of Justice won a ruling in a New York court to have $300 million dollars frozen as part of an investigation into what it described as an “international conspiracy to launder corrupt payments.”
The lawsuit alleges that illicit payments were made by two telecoms companies, Russia’s MTS and Amsterdam-based VimpelCom, which is majority owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, to curry influence and secure favorable decisions to operate in Uzbekistan’s telecommunications sector.
The chief beneficiary is not named in the complaint but is described as a “close relative” of Karimov. The lawsuit characterizes the individual as “GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL A,” who previously “held several positions in the Uzbek government.”
Gulnara Karimova, the president’s eldest daughter who is incommunicado under house arrest in Tashkent, has previously been named as a suspect in a money-laundering probe in Switzerland involving payments in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector, which is linked to an ongoing bribery probe in Sweden over payments made by Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera to operate in Uzbekistan.
Karimova — of whom nothing has been heard for over a year, when Uzbekistani prosecutors declared her the target of an organized crime probe — has held government positions including as deputy foreign minister and ambassador to Spain and the United Nations in Geneva.
Two days before Lunder’s arrest, VimpelCom announced that it was setting aside $900m to cover potential, albeit as yet undecided, liabilities that may result from ongoing corruption probes by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Dutch Public Prosecution Service.
They relate to the firm’s “business in Uzbekistan and prior dealings with Takilant Ltd,” one of the shell companies run by Karimova associates that allegedly laundered the proceeds of bribery, said VimpelCom, which previously told EurasiaNet.org it was cooperating with the investigations.
The fallout from the Uzbekistan bribery scandal has been immense in Norway, where state-owned Telenor owns a minority stake in VimpelCom which it is now seeking to sell.
On October 30, Svein Aaser resigned as chairman of Telenor after Oslo accused him of withholding details of the Uzbekistan-linked corruption investigation from the government.
“I would like to emphasize that it is VimpelCom that is under investigation and that Telenor has fully cooperated with investigating authorities as a witness,” he said in his resignation statement.